Charlie Warzel on Google’s Ambitions Post-I/O

I enjoyed this piece by Charlie Warzel on Google’s I/O keynote, but disagree with it. The headline, I thought, nailed it:

Google’s Quest For Complete Control Of Your Digital Life

The sub-head, not so much:

Today’s keynote suggests Google is poised to surpass Apple when it comes to mobile design.

For example, it’s pretty hard to see Google as “surpassing Apple when it comes to mobile design” when this is the current Android UI for copy/paste (“A powerful yet completely hidden feature is easy to use once you find it”), and this oddly familiar UI is what’s coming in Android M.

I think what Google’s I/O keynote was about is a post-mobile world. It’s about ubiquitous computing that is contextually-aware and identity-aware — about Google knowing who you are, where you are, and what you’re doing at all times. From your doorknob to your desktop. That’s not Google surpassing Apple at “mobile design”. That’s Google beating Apple to a world where anything and everything is a networked computing device.

But, I’m unconvinced their demos were all that impressive. The demo that most impressed Warzel was of a “Now on Tap” music player. Now on Tap is a new opt-in feature where Android apps can allow Google to know exactly what the current app on your Android device is displaying or playing. In the demo, while playing a Skrillex song, Google director of product management Aparna Chennapragada asked the device, “What’s his real name?” And a moment later, the answer came: “Sonny John Moore”. Now on Tap is what allowed Google to know the context for “him”.

It was a cool demo. But as soon as I saw it, I took my iPhone, held down the home button, and asked Siri, “What’s Skrillex’s real name?” And a moment later came the answer: “Sonny John Moore”. Allowing Google to index everything the apps you use show or play for you seems like a stiff privacy price to pay for the ability to use “him” in that query, especially when, in my opinion, “What is Skrillex’s real name?” is the natural way most people would pose the question.

Now on Tap has much more potential than this, of course. But, still. To me, this week’s I/O keynote made me more convinced than ever that Google is turning into the Microsoft of old: a company whose ambitions are boundless, who wants its fingers in every single pie, and who wants to do it all on its own. A company whose coolest stuff is always in the form of demos coming in the future, not products that are actually shipping now.

Update: On Twitter, Pavan Rajam observes, “Every Google headline on top of Techmeme now involves a “Project”, not a product:

Friday, 29 May 2015