Google I/O Announcements Reflect Reduced Role of Android

Google kicked off its I/O developer conference today with a two-hour keynote highlighting announcements across a number of different areas of its business. The comment below may be attributed to Jan Dawson, Chief Analyst, Jackdaw Research. Jan may also be reached for further comment at 408 744 6244 or 

In what was to have been a 90-minute keynote, Google didn’t get to Android until over 75 minutes in, and that was reflective of a shift we’ve seen from Google in recent years, in which it’s de-emphasized the core Android operating system while shifting focus to individual apps that run on top of it. In what’s ostensibly a developer event, it’s notable that Google spent almost all of the first hour talking about end user features, and all of them in turn exist as apps and not OS-level features.

That’s a reflection of two realities Google is presently dealing with: firstly, its loss of control over Android as OEMs and carriers continue to drive slow upgrade rates and overlay their own features and services; and secondly, the fact that many of Google’s most attractive and valuable users don’t use Android. As such, it increasingly needs to push its services to third party platforms and devices other than smartphones, including Apple’s iOS devices and its own Home smart speaker. Products like the Google Assistant, Google Photos, Google Lens, and others will do well in the market precisely because they’re not limited to just Android smartphones.

AI and machine learning were again major themes, as they have been for Google at past I/O conferences and as they were at both Facebook and Microsoft’s equivalent events over the past several weeks. All of these companies are using these events to burnish their AI credentials and demonstrate leadership, but Google more than the others demonstrated how pervasively AI and machine learning are now built into all its products and services.

Google is moving its Home speaker along quickly, competing effectively with Amazon’s Echo despite its earlier market entry and several recent feature enhancements. Individual user recognition continues to be an important area of differentiation for Google, and it doubled down on it with several additional features that take advantage of it. The fact that Google has long focused on individual user accounts while Amazon mostly has household-level relationships will become even more important over time as speaker-based assistants become more personalized. Phone calling using real numbers, additional entertainment integrations, and the ability to leverage other Android-powered screens in the home all feel like useful additions to the Home.

The latest version of Android, meanwhile, includes lots of minor feature improvements for better achieving parity with iOS, across security, usability, and performance. There’s almost nothing here which sets Android apart in a positive way, and much of what’s being announced is about offsetting the disadvantages Android has always labored under by being a more open system. What we’re seeing is the slow uncoupling of the most interesting features of Android from the operating system itself and into apps which are also available on iOS, making the OS less differentiated but also making the slow upgrade process for new versions less important. The one area where Android is setting itself apart is in support for users in emerging markets, which it already dominates because of the high cost of iPhones, but where it can and must still do better. Its Building for Billions effort should help Android developers think more responsibly about how their apps will be used in those markets.

Lastly, Google continues to evolve its vision for VR while struggling for relevance in AR. Daydream as a platform and the View as a device are arguably both more compelling from a user perspective than Samsung’s Gear VR, but it’s the latter that’s dominated the mobile VR space so far because of Samsung’s massive reach. Getting Samsung to support Daydream is therefore a huge step forward for Daydream, while producing standalone VR headsets potentially gets Google into other segments of the VR market, though we don’t yet know what the price/performance tradeoffs will be relative to other systems. On AR, Google’s Tango continues to do very interesting things at tiny scale, and it doesn’t look like that’s going to change anytime soon, which means it’ll likely remain a marginal play while others including Facebook, Apple, Snapchat, and others dominate the early running.

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