Quick Thoughts: Google – Innovation, Fast and Furious
– Google’s I/O conference yielded the Nexus 7 tablet, details on Android 4.1, an Events feature for Google+, the Nexus Q home media hub, new content agreements and a cool Project Glass demo.
– The specs on the Google-designed Asus built Nexus 7, are impressive given the $199 price point. A much better tablet than the Kindle Fire priced 60% lower than iPad should find a good market.
– Android “Jelly Bean” moves the bar forward, with a big OS speed improvement and a search revamp that includes Siri-like voice control and location/history aware anticipation of user needs.
– Google+ Events is Evite on steroids, Nexus Q is pricey, but offers nifty sharing features, hip design and made in the USA cred, Google Play gets a lot more content, and Project Glass is real.
On the heels of Apple’s WWDC and Microsoft’s dramatic announcement of its Surface Windows 8 based tablet, Google’s I/O developers conference had the potential to be an anticlimax. However, once the team of extreme athletes, all wearing prototypes of Google’s Project Glass headgear, biked into the presentation hall after having jumped from a blimp in wing suits, parachuted to the roof of the Moscone Center, performed BMX tricks in a makeshift half-pipe on that roof, and rappelled down the side of the building to the third floor, it was clear that Google was not being upstaged by anybody. The prototypes of Project Glass include a camera, processor, memory, radio chips, a tiny screen and a touch panel controller in an amazingly unobtrusive eyeglass-like form factor yielded a demo that made a fairly compelling case that the product that most had dismissed as a toy might be useful after all. In any case, it goes down as one of the greatest tech product demos of all time.
Of course Google offered up plenty of steak to go with the sizzle. As widely rumored, Google announced the Nexus 7. At 7”, the Nexus 7 slots into the mid-range between the biggest smartphones – the Samsung Galaxy Note pushes the envelope at 5” – and the 10” iPad. The only notable success in this form factor has been the Kindle Fire, which replaced most of Android’s user interface with an Amazon built alternative designed primarily to funnel customers into that company’s media and e-commerce kingdom. The Nexus 7 comes squarely after the Fire at the same $199 price point, but offering serious spec upgrades all around and the full power of Google’s new “Jelly Bean” Android release. Built by Asus to Google’s specs, the Nexus 7 has 1280×800 resolution, a quad-core Tegra3 processor, a 1.2 megapixel front-facing camera, NFC, and a package of bundled content. The interface features media content – music, books, magazines, TV shows and movies – all now available from Google’s Play store, but is expected to support the most popular Android apps and the Chrome browser for Android, newly emerged from Beta. All of this is available for order now and delivery in July.
Analysts have been tripping over themselves to deny that the Nexus7 will have any impact whatsoever on Apple’s iPad, but this seems a bit like fan-boy wishful thinking. There have to be some would-be iPad customers for whom the $300 price differential is ample compensation for forgoing that gorgeous big retina display and the seamless iOS experience. At the very least, the Nexus7 stakes a claim in an obvious “where will Apple go next?” spot at a price point that would likely be unpalatable in Cupertino. It is also more than possible that the Nexus 7 will get a bigger brother in the not-too-distant future. Moreover, it is not as though the rest of the Android licensees have thrown in the towel, so expect a rush of Jelly Bean tablets between now and Christmas to add a bit more competitive flavor to the mix. To make it clear – I expect a LOT of tablets to be sold, and the iPad will be the biggest beneficiary, but I do NOT expect Apple’s 70% market share to hold.
Jelly Bean, that is, Android release 4.1, will roll out to select Android devices at roughly the same July time frame that the Nexus7 ships. The biggest deal about Jelly Bean is the fruit from Project Butter, a high-calorie effort to jack up Android’s performance. The whole system will be synchronized to 60fps, noticeably cutting response times, smoothing animations, and revving the CPU immediately upon registering a touch. Jelly Bean also adds improvements to the on-screen keyboard and to voice recognition. Google’s voice controls, which pre-date Siri, have been pulled on board to work off-line and to eliminate the lag of waiting for the cloud to interpret speech. The demo was impressive, but the proof will come in the field. Voice controls lead into a revamped search interface, which responds with a new graphical card format, which can be swept away to reveal a more traditional list of search results.
Jelly Bean also introduces a location and history aware search product called Google Now. Using information from a user’s browsing history and location records, Google Now aims to anticipate user needs. The demo showed how the system could automatically calculate trip time for a user’s normal commute, offering alternative routes should traffic dictate. The system could determine necessary transit times in advance of scheduled meetings or make restaurant recommendations tied to a users established tastes. Assuming it is well implemented, this could be a major advance.
Google also announced several other developments. Google+, last year’s big I/O announcement, has apparently hit a reasonable critical mass of 150 million active users, with half signing on daily, mostly from the mobile app. For these users, Google announced Events, an application that takes event planning from invitation to documenting the party with photos posted by participants. The demo showed a wedding with camera phone shots automatically updated to an on-line album, thus, eliminating the need for those disposable cameras on every table. Google also announced the Nexus Q, an oddly spherical home media hub enabling music and video streaming from the cloud with an social interactive component that allows Android devices to contribute to play lists on the fly. Interesting in concept, it seems a bit expensive at $299, particularly given the slow sales of the $99 AppleTV.
Overall, the I/O keynote showed a company with its tentacles splayed across the full consumer Internet experience. Android is a powerful and vital platform to project Google’s ambitions, and today’s announcements show that it is successfully extending the length and breadth of its reach. More than 400 million Android devices have been activated in total, averaging a million new activations each day. Google wins by satisfying the needs of these users, enticing them to play across multiple device categories, integrating value added functions directly into the Android platform, and using that platform as a vehicle for advertising, transactions, media distribution, consumer services and e-commerce. Today’s presentations suggest ample progress against that vision.
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