Google today held the keynote for its I/O developer event. It previewed a new version of Android for smartphones and tablets as well as detailing narrower user Android-based interfaces for the car, wearables and the TV. The following comment may be attributed to Jan Dawson, Chief Analyst at Jackdaw Research. Jan can also be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (408) 744-6244.
The overriding theme of the I/O keynote was Google reasserting control over Android. The core objective of Android has always been to provide the widest possible audience for Google’s services, but over the last several years Google has seen a variety of device vendors customize, tweak and fork Android in ways that either submerge Google’s services beneath their own or strip them out entirely. Google has achieved its objective of creating a very widely used mobile operating system, but it’s a very Google-light version of Android which is driving that growth. Android One is ostensibly about expanding the availability of cheap smartphones using Android in emerging markets, but Android is already the default operating system for cheap smartphones. The problem is that it’s often a version of Android which has very little to do with Google. Android One will re-enshrine Google’s services at the center of these devices, which will run stock Android and be free from the sorts of customizations so popular with the largest Android manufacturers, notably Samsung.
Google’s increased control over Android extends to Android Wear, Android Auto and Android TV too. As shown at I/O, the Android user interfaces in each of these new domains will be standard Google interfaces, and won’t be customizable in the way Android on smartphones and tablets has been. Google’s search and voice control, Google-provided location and other contextual data and other Google-centric services will be at the heart of these devices in a way they’re currently not on many Android smartphones and tablets.
Another theme was Google’s attempt to promote web apps versus native applications, since Google dominates web search but has failed to replicate that dominance in mobile apps. Extending App Linking to all developers allows Google to include links to specific points within apps in Google’s web searches and will therefore bring the world of apps into Google search. Promoting individual web browser tabs to the level of native apps in the recently used apps screen also gives web apps a new prominence. Google will also include deep linking within search results in the Google search box on Android devices. All of these together are attempts by Google to redress the disparity between native and web apps on mobile and reassert its dominance.
Google also laid out its vision for increasing integration between its various platforms, echoing a theme from both Microsoft’s Build and Apple’s WWDC. Each of these companies, though, is approaching that integration in a different way. Microsoft is focusing on the top and bottom of the stack – the user interface at the top and the code at the bottom. Apple is focusing on back-end services and a common user experience rather than a common user interface. Google, in turn, is borrowing elements of both, with Continuity-like features between smartphones and Chromebooks, a common design language across all of Google’s services and so on. The smartphone is clearly at the center of Google’s integration strategy, as it is for Apple, whereas Microsoft’s is still more focused on the desktop and to a lesser extent the tablet, where it’s comparative strengths lie.
Overall, what’s striking is the way each of these three major companies – Google, Microsoft and Apple – are seeking to participate across four key domains: the home, the car, the body and the mobile world at large. Each now has a stated strategy in each of those domains and it will be interesting to see how they shape up against each other. Those strategies are remarkably similar, with Apple departing from its usual hardware-centric approach to take more of a platform approach in the home, car and wearables. But they’re also different – Google made much (rightly so) of its many partnerships with car manufacturers, TV vendors and smartwatch makers, and continues to go broad rather than deep. Google and Apple now have very similar-sized bases – Google has over 1 billion active monthly users, while Apple has around 800 million iTunes accounts, and likely a similar number of total devices in use. But Apple’s ecosystem continues to be far more lucrative for developers, generating over $9 billion in revenue for developers in the past twelve months, while Google generated just $5 billion.