Google today held its first-day keynote at its I/O developer conference in Mountain View, California. The comments below may be attributed to Jan Dawson, Chief Analyst, Jackdaw Research. Jan is at Google I/O in person this week and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org for further comment.
Google’s announcements at I/O appear focused on trying to close gaps with major competitors including Amazon, Facebook, and Apple. This includes trying once again to break into messaging and video calling, and playing catchup in the home speaker space pioneered by Amazon Echo. The technology looks good in principle, but there’s a significant risk that Google is coming into some of these markets too late to make a difference. On the other hand, its VR and Instant Apps announcements are more likely to provide leadership in new markets.
Google’s new assistant is its attempt to bring together a set of disparate efforts at Google that have lacked a coherent brand. Referring to the combined functions of Google Now, OK Google, and other elements has been tough in the past, because there wasn’t a single name for this functionality. Google now has that in the assistant, and is planning to extend into the home with an Echo-like device called Home, as well as into messaging with Allo. This should help Google compete more effectively both with Amazon’s Echo device but also with better-branded personal assistants like Siri, Cortana, and Alexa. Assistant is somewhat unique in how it will combine voice and text-based inputs in a conversational UI. But it also steers clear of the more human naming conventions that have become common for such products, which may make it harder for users to engage with it on a personal level, but also avoids some of the problematic issues with generally female-gendered assistants.
Allo also appears to tap into Google’s unique skills in a way none of Google’s messaging apps have in the past. This is a good step forward for Google, which has consistently struggled with making a meaningful contribution to the messaging space. However, it’s not clear that features alone will make a difference for Google – another area where Google has failed repeatedly is social apps, and getting a critical mass of users for Allo will be the single biggest challenge. Though the integration of the Google assistant is unique and attractive, if your friends aren’t on Allo, it won’t be all that useful. Both Allo and Duo suffer from landing in the market late compared to competing apps, at a point where it may be too hard to get people to switch from apps they’ve come to rely on, and which all their friends use.
This edition of I/O was notable for its lack of real news around Android, since Google previewed its N release a few weeks ago. That made the Android portion of the keynote feel flat compared to previous years, but it also made the real news stand out more. The main focus here was virtual reality, where Google’s new Daydream program should help move VR on Android beyond its current domination by Samsung and Gear VR. While Gear VR has helped pioneer Android on mobile devices, it’s also limited as an experience, with a problematic touchpad and a limited range of compatible phones. The Daydream program should help open up VR opportunities to additional handset vendors without the resources to create their own programs, as well as additional accessory makers. The VR market is still nascent, but over the next year or two we will start to see it become more mainstream, which will increase the pressure on Apple and other holdouts to make a play. On the other hand, the Daydream specs for phones set a fairly high bar, and it looks like no current Android devices will make the cut. New devices should be out in the fall, but this means Daydream-based devices will take some time to build scale.
Perhaps the most meaningful other announcement is the creation of Android Instant Apps. Google has already played with the app streaming model with a handful of apps that don’t have web equivalents, but this model seems to be more broadly applicable, and actually downloads assets to the phone. Unlike app streaming, Instant Apps doesn’t appear to be an attempt to get users to stay on the web, the domain Google prefers because it can show advertising. Rather, it seems to be an attempt to better serve users and developers by allowing them to borrow apps for brief interactions without the baggage that comes with a traditional app download. More importantly, it looks like Google will make Instant Apps backward compatible with phones running all versions of Android back to Jellybean, which covers 95% of active Android users today, versus just 7.5% running the latest version, Marshmallow. This is a model that has potential to significantly change the way at least certain kinds of apps work, and it’s good to see Google innovating in this way.