Despite a low-key Google I/O conference this year, Google has transformed itself into a company of fearsome focus.
Google I/O 2013 has come and gone without major developments affecting the company's two primary platforms, Android and Chrome, but the developer conference nonetheless demonstrated how Google is outpacing its competitors.
Certainly, that's evident in the numbers Google provided, 900 million Android activations to date and 750 million users of Chrome worldwide. But such statistics only sketch the outline of Google's success.
Google began as a search company and seventeen years later, the head of the company's search technology, Amit Singhal opened his portion of the Google I/O keynote by taking about the end of search as we know it. Even if that's more rhetoric than reality -- Google will still be in the search ad business no matter how search changes for the foreseeable future -- it reveals a willingness to take risks that Apple and Microsoft seem to be unwilling or unable to match.
Singhal described how in his youth he was inspired by the computer on Star Trek, a machine capable of conversing and understanding questions. Google is developing something comparable: mobile VP Johanna Wright demonstrated a future version of Google Search that will support "hotwording," listening for a phrase like "OK Google" and then treating the words that follow as a query.
Someone from Apple should have been making that announcement. The company launched Siri, its voice-driven personal assistant software, in October 2011. Siri was seen as a sign that Apple was ready to challenge Google's search dominance by betting on a future where spoken queries matter more than text queries. But Apple hasn't moved quickly enough and now finds Google pushing the technological envelope and advancing related post-search services like Google Now.
Then Apple's attempt to compete with Google Maps went badly awry. As Apple works to recover from the embarrassing debut of its own Maps app, Google has launched a preview of the next version of Google Maps, and this time it's personal, or rather, personalized.
Part of the problem is that Apple and Microsoft (not to mention Facebook) spend far too much energy keeping Google out instead of deploying services that are better than Google's.
Communities around the country are hungry for high-speed broadband and falling all over themselves to become the next Google Fiber city. Google rightly recognizes how much Americans resent the telephone and cable monopolies, with their high fees, lack of options and poor service. Apple and Microsoft could have launched similar initiatives, if they had more expansive ambitions and were more willing to challenge existing business models. Really, there's something ludicrous about how Microsoft makes billions selling more or less the same word processor, spreadsheet and email client to everyone every two or three years.
Where is Apple Street View? It doesn't exist (yet). Microsoft rightly understood the vast usefulness of Google Street View and launched its own, Microsoft Streetside. But the company found a way to limit adoption by requiring people to download its Silverlight software, now slated for extinction because of poor uptake.
Apple's iCloud also suffers in comparison to Google's cloud offerings, as has been documentedinvariousreports. Microsoft, at least, has shown it can compete in the cloud, even if it's too reliant on Office as a way to rope customers in.
Meanwhile, Google is pushing ahead with its Cloud Platform to compete with Amazon Web Services. The company opened Google Compute Engine to the public, added PHP support to App Engine and introduced Cloud Datastore.
Google gave developers at I/O a Chromebook Pixel, a high-end Chrome OS laptop that should set off alarm bells at Apple: Despite the fact that this is a niche luxury product designed to show developers how the Web can work with a high-resolution touchscreen, it's proof that Apple cannot rely on aesthetic superiority as a means of product differentiation, the way it could when the competition consisted of Windows PC vendors with an affinity for beige plastic.
Google also launched Google Play game services, for Android, iOS and the Web. Apple's focus on its own platforms will hurt it here: Given a choice between integrating the Apple-only Game Center and the cross-platform Google Play services, developers are likely to lean Google if they're not exclusively committed to iOS. Apple looked outward with iTunes by creating a Windows version; it should have launched an Android version of Game Center instead of burying its head in the sand.
Despite the absence of a significant Android update, Microsoft isn't any closer to changing the balance of power in the smartphone market. Apple at least is doing well here, though Android's relentless rise has to be keeping Apple executives awake. Google also beat Apple to the punch by launching its streaming music service, the inelegantly named Google Play Music All Access, before Apple could launch one of its own.
Google CEO Larry Page insisted the competition between major Internet companies isn't a zero sum game, but it seems doubtful that the majority of consumers will be keen to pay monthly subscription fees for multiple streaming music services.
There was a lot of attention paid to Google+ at Google I/O, particularly to improvements made to Google+ Photos. Though Facebook remains the leader in social networking, Google's vision of social computing is no longer laughable, because Google has the power to force participation and because some services, like Hangouts, are really good. Google+ is unavoidable, for better or worse. But Apple and Microsoft have nothing comparable, outside of a few strong stand-alone services like iMessage and Skype.
All told, Google's announcements were modest, but the company's ambitions keep getting bolder. Google's competitors need to wake up to the fact that complaining to regulators and hiding behind technical barriers to entry won't save them. They need to move faster and compete more vigorously.
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