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Google's Game Changers: Are They Enough?

With Chromebooks, an improved tablet OS, and more, Google took aim at Apple and Microsoft, but are ChromeOS and Android on a collision course?

This week was Google's turn to dazzle, and it didn't disappoint. New tablets, an improved tablet OS, new developer tools for turning virtually anything into an Android peripheral, the promise of a unified Android across devices, improved browser performance, an evolved ChromeOS now tied to a hardware strategy called Chromebooks ... and that's just a partial list of Google I/O winning moments.

CIOs, end users, and consumers have to be impressed with the aggressive pace Google sets, and with its vision of a mobile, web-based world, even if the benefits are sometimes distant. Companies have to buy from what exists today, but CIOs also have to make bets based on what happens next, and Google certainly showed its cards this week.

CIOs are finally admitting that, when it comes to personal computing, the users are in charge. The days of listening to the customer--internal and external--replaced the days of dictating a solution. But we're now entering an era where CIOs are simply watching the behavior and adapting. That means sandboxing and managing corporate and personal data and applications on the same device, enforcing security and policies across platforms, addressing privacy and compliance concerns, and in some cases forgiving the exuberance about devices that seem to have become human appendages.

How, then, does Google break through? Phones based on its Android operating system have finally begun a march toward parity, if not market domination (the company claims it has activated 100 million devices worldwide). It's done so largely through its Microsoft-like strategy of creating an OEM channel that allows for innovation and iteration, with all the requisite missteps--an almost-necessary aspect to Google's success. If Google views its flaws as teachable moments, Apple's are purposeful and planned. Customers decide which approach wins, and both are winning.

Google is living through some more difficult teachable moments now (poor tablet sales, for one), and while learning is hard-coded into the Google innovation process, how quickly that happens will decide Google's short-term fate. This week, Google shed light on a mobile vision that transcends devices and release dates and applications, taking great pains to dig at Apple and wedge distinctions wherever it could.

Google also took aim at Microsoft, questioning the very existence of Windows on desktops and laptops, practically declaring the end of the PC era, with ChromeOS paving the way toward a completely web-based computing model. Make no mistake: Google wants to power the computing devices of the next decade and beyond, and it's going right after the most dominant players.

It's easy to fall for Google. It never fails to invent, its energy never seems to wane. Its vision not only resonates, it captivates. But its dual-pronged desire to beat both Apple and Microsoft will take time and will and execution, all while neither competitor is standing still. Apple's developer conference is a few weeks away, and Apple is loathe to be upstaged by anyone. Microsoft's acquisition of Skype might be just the beginning of its re-tooling, if not quite an ending to its long-standing role as tortoise to Apple and Google hares.

Wise CIOs won't make bets based on what they desire, but on the desire of their customers--both internal and external. Employees and customers want iPads and iPhones, CIOs want BlackBerries--though maybe that's less true today, as evidenced by the explosion of the mobile device management market. Today, Google falls somewhere in between.

Google's Mobile Mosh Pit

It's difficult to call Apple's lead in tablets or its momentum in smartphones insurmountable. It's far too early. But it sure is impressive. Google has plodded along, defiantly facing questions about fragmentation as it created one OS for smartphones, one for tablets. But that will change later this year with Ice Cream Sandwich, a unification of the operating systems that Google is providing absolutely no details on. Just build Honeycomb apps, Google told developers; trust us.

Honeycomb keeps getting better. Apple's year-long head-start makes iOS seem as if it's a natural user experience, but Honeycomb includes some incredibly useful ways to navigate and multitask, including version 3.1's expandable apps list (previously limited to the last five apps), and re-sizable widgets for things like email and calendars (previously boxed into small window).

Google is also adding functionality to the action bar and building out its app framework, which lets developers access a standard set of application functionality. The company demonstrated innovations like using voice recognition for camera tracking--wherever the speaker is sitting, the camera will detect the right angle to project.

Honeycomb now also includes USB connectivity for bringing in pictures from cameras, or plugging in controllers or other USB accessories. In fact, Google painted a world where Android devices become the controlling elements for any type of appliance. Android 3.1 will run Google TV and will use the same tablet SDK. Google is also working [email protected], a framework that foresees an Android device communicating with home appliances. Already Lighting Science has Android-based LED lightbulbs and switches in the works, for example.

CIOs like vision. If Google is investing at this pace (company officials said software release cycles happen every six weeks), that matters. At BlackBerry World, one CIO said that he was there simply to check on his investment. His company has been all-in on BlackBerry, and in the face of the typical iPad influx, mixed with a dramatic drop in Research In Motion's market value, he was concerned. His company is not a small concern.

But users don't want vision, they wants apps--useful and productive apps, fun and entertaining apps, work and convenience apps, browser and email apps, media apps. Android believers may be perfectly satisfied with what's available now (200,000 apps, according to Google), or patient enough to wait for what will come, but Google hasn't made it easy for developers who want to target multiple devices. Unification is the first big step.

Instead of unification details, Google said that it wanted every developer to have a Honeycomb tablet, and gave away more than 5,000 of them. Apple hasn't needed to do that. Just sayin.

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