Some quick thoughts at the end of two full days at the Google I/O conference. The event had many sold-out sessions populated by attendees that were listening intently to Google’s message about the future of the Web, mobile devices, digital television, and platforms in the cloud.
Some key themes:
- HTML5. Google played the HTML5 card, and played it well. There were announcements around open-source WebM video and audio, Web apps in the Chrome Web store, demos of compelling HTML5 apps like Sports Illustrated and Tweetdeck, plus sessions for developers on HTML5 coding. What’s ironic is that Apple lately has been using HTML5 to flay Adobe in the media (unfairly, in my opinion), putting forth a message that HTML5 is the future and Flash is the past. What Google has done is to step into the fray and to in effect, say to Apple “I’ll match your HTML5 card, and raise you one.” Google made space in the tent for Adobe, with onstage demos of Adobe’s HTML5 design tool and the Android beta of Flash 10.1. Apple may find that HTML5 becomes a competitive weapon that Google uses to shift Apple off-balance.
- Dissing Apple. Wednesday’s keynote was a straightforward demonstration of HTML5 capabilities, without direct mention of Apple. By contrast, Thursday’s keynote began with a reference to the 1984 Big Brother commercial, and the implication that Apple has transmogrified into its opposite. This was followed by snarky digs every 10 minutes or so during the keynote. I am no fan of Apple’s policies (such as Section 3.3.1 of the Developer SDK agreement) and the recent shift by Apple to a control-oriented management style. Even so, the snark and swagger at the Thursday keynote seemed unnecessary to me. The in-your-face overtone seems un-Google-like. Perhaps it’s an indicator that Google has become more like a traditional company, adopting the aggressive style of Microsoft in its heyday.
- Android gaining steam. The Android train is rolling down the track and gaining speed. Google stated that there were now 100,000 new-phone activations per day (doubling every four months), with 50,000 apps in the marketplace and 180,000 developers. There was a long exhibit case in the foyer — a wall of Android devices from many different vendors. Over the past year, I spent several months using an Android G2, and while I found a better-than-average user experience compared to many other smart-phones, it was still not an iPhone-class device. However, the latest generation of devices, such as the HTC EVO 4G and the Sony Ericsson Xperia 10, shown at the conference, have crossed over that line, into the world of compelling industrial design, with beautiful screen displays, responsive touch interface, fast processor, and refined user experience.
- App Engine into the Enterprise. Google App Engine, in its initial incarnation, was hobbled by obstacles to adoption. Developers encountered undesirable constraints (such as 10-second time out for HTTP requests), unpredictable cost model, lack of data integration into enterprise systems, lack of compatibility with established enterprise technologies (Java, SQL), and lack of deployment options (such as private and hybrid cloud deployments). Over the past year, Google has been tweaking or removing these barriers, and this week announced further improvements under the banner “App Engine for Business”: ability to deploy to private clouds (from a partnership with VMWare), a more predictable pricing model, improved support for SQL, stronger SLAs, Google Storage (a large data-object offering similar to Amazon’s S3), and an enlightening demonstration of the developer productivity that is possible with VMWare Spring Roo (a server-side code generation tool) in conjunction with the Google GWT Ajax library. I’ve noticed App Engine finally getting some traction in the community of Web-centric independent developers, but little uptake in the enterprise sector. The changes announced this week could improve that situation signficantly.
- Wave mostly in the Background. The shining star at last year’s Google I/O event was Google Wave, a totally unexpected demonstration of innovative thinking and strong technical prowess that brought the audience to its feet in a roaring ovation. How times have changed. Over the past year, users have discovered that Google Wave is difficult to use, slow performing, and more limited in usefulness compared to the skyhigh expectations set at last year’s keynote. This year, a chastened Wave team had a simple message: come back and give us another try, things have improved, really. In the meantime, Google Apps such as Gmail have incorporated some of the innovations first shown by the Wave team, and likely more are in the offing. Wave is seeking a second wind, which may happen as a result of opening up access to Wave for everyone, not just those on the invitation list.
- Google TV is a Puzzle. But maybe it’s just me, because I am not a TV watcher. That is, I don’t schedule my week around a favorite show. I disconnected my cable television service and Tivo last year and have not missed it, with the exception of an occasional sports event (can be remedied by a visit to a local sports bar). When I need traditional television content, I find it on Hulu, YouTube, the Comedy Channel, Netflix, iTunes or other online sources. My style is more lean-forward rather than lean-back. However, at Thursday’s keynote, Google stated that TV watching is not declining, but increasing, to an average of 5 hours per day (which means someone somewhere must be watching 10 hours per day to cover my unused share). As an outsider to this aspect of pop culture, I can merely make the following observations: that the road to digital interactive television is littered with the carcasses of past attempts (WebTV, AppleTV, etc). Also, that I have seen this movie before, except with different cast of characters and different settings (in the category of enterprise software, identity management, etc). The familiar scene is when a big company in an industry sector marshals a half-dozen or more executives from other big companies onto a stage , and then they all say nice things about each other, and talk about a shared vision of a future that is supposed to happen next year or the year after. In my experience, this kind of movie often eventually ends with a whimper, not a bang. However, Google TV may be the exception to the rule. If anyone can pull this off, it would be Google. But significant challenges remain, and questions that will only be answered over time.
- Facewho? Last month, Facebook’s F8 developer event presented an ambitious initiative to paint the entire Web with social metadata generated by Facebook’s burgeoning population, enabled by the social platform and distributed social APIs. At the time, it seemed that Facebook (which is adding 50 million users per month and will reach the 500 million user milestone next month) was becoming a contender that could eventually unseat Google at the top of the hierarchy of Web companies. Since then, Facebook has run into a firestorm of user backlash (amplified by the media) regarding privacy issues. Perhaps this is why Google felt no need to diss Facebook in the way that they dissed Apple onstage. Google’s OpenSocial, which was a key message two years ago, was placed even further in the background than Google Wave at the conference. Despite Facebook’s current woes, the Web is clearly evolving to become the social Web in its entirety, and Google seems to have a gap in its corporate DNA regarding the social dimension. Past acquisitions of promising social properties such as Jaiku, Dodgeball, Orkut, and Latitude, have stagnated or failed. So despite current Facebook backlash, Google needs to keep an eye on this particular sphere.
So what are your thoughts about this week’s events? Did I miss anything?
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