Something was different about this year’s Google I/O; something special, perhaps even grounded. Its an event where we have come to expect moonshots and overly idealistic solutions to problems that do not exist or are grossly misrepresented, but that has changed.
Last year’s Google I/O was a turning point, moving towards a more mature and grown-up Google that shifted heavily towards AI and directly at consumers with products like Google Home and the Google Assistant. The shift was explicit, with Google’s Sundar Pichai stating they were transitioning from mobile to AI-first, signalling the priorities of years to come. However, as many heavy Google users know, last year was sort of a bust too. Products and services that were announced were not available for months, and even then they were half-baked, requiring months of use and updates before they became even remotely competitive. My Google Home is only just now becoming useful for things more than playing a random game, asking a basic question, or setting a kitchen timer. Allo and Duo are, well, Allo and Duo… and almost a year later are just getting things like chat-backup and the soon-to-be-released desktop client.
One of Google Assistants big announcements this year was keyboard input, a feature that should have been day-1 outside of the Allo application. Daydream and Android Instant apps both kind of stuttered out of the gate, only to be rekindled at this years I/O, and who can forget about Android Wear 2.0… one of the worst software update rollouts I have ever experienced. Don’t believe me? let this sink in: the Huawei Watch took 355 days to go from Developer Preview to full release. To put it bluntly; Google I/O 16’ was an event that felt like it was 6 to 12 months too early, and nearly every product announced suffered as a result. So what changed? More user focused and less idealistic products, less moonshots.
“Google I/O 17’ was the turning point”
Coming off I/O 16’ I was highly skeptical of what Google would announce, and if we would actually see much of it anytime soon; but I left pleasantly surprised. I/O 17’ was not perfect, but in many ways it signalled a company that was more in touch with its users and developers, focusing on real use cases for things it demonstrated.
Take for instance, my personal favorite part, the enhancements to Google Photos. Google Photos is already one of Google’s easiest to use and widely available products and instead of adding features that may have a “WOW” factor but little usability, they focused on real world scenarios and how to better fit their product into their users’ lives.I don’t think that there is a single person who won’t use at least one of the new features like “Suggested Sharing” which recommends sharing by figuring out who is in a photo. Many will remember a Google+ Events feature that enabled all photos taken at an event to automatically be shared with the group. Think of Suggested Sharing as a far more practical version of that, one that will continue to add to Google Photos usefulness. Shared Libraries and Photo Books are two other products that on the surface are not ground-breaking, but stands to further entrench the product into the lives of its more than 500 million monthly users. The Google Assistant and Google Home saw similar enhancements with useful, but not groundbreaking updates. Features like Google Lens, hands-free calling, proactive notifications, keyboard text input support, IFTTT-like Shortcuts, and the jaw dropping demonstration of Actions on Google for Google Assistant.
Android was not left out of the fray either, and while Android N was one of the best announcements from I/O 16’, Android O looks to be one of the most well thought-out and targeted releases in a while, with the immediate future of Android seemingly having no useless branches. Smart text selection improves on what is already the one of the most useful features on Android and Android Go helps bring usable performance to very low spec devices and is slated to follow full-scale Android releases, although time will tell if this actually remains true. More information was also provided as to how Google plans to support devices shipping with Android O outside of manufacturer and carrier changes, and even announced a new way to update display drivers through Google Play Services, updates that perfectly target issues that plague Android today.
Google is also focusing a lot of its energy on “vitals” to help improve battery life and performance by improving application launch times and restricting background tasks from errant programs. There’s also full support of the Kotlin programming language, an announcement that got the largest amount of applause from the developers in the crowd, and this does not even go into its AI and Machine Learning announcements and updates related to TensorFlow and its Cloud TPU’s. Android Wear and Android TV also got a breath of new life with the latter receiving a brand new and beautiful interface, one that I am very much enjoying on my nearly 3 year old Nexus Player, as well as Google Assistant features coming to it and the Google Cast platforms.
An article that dives into everything from this years Google I/O would be thousands of words and still could not cover all the announcements, changes, and improvements (we’ve tried), because of all the little tidbits scattered throughout every talk. While that could be said about every Google I/O this year was different; it was almost palatable. In its second year since the Alphabet transition, Google was streamlined its targeting of, what we call in customer service, “pain points”. They are no longer dancing around issues like security and updates and are hitting them head on by simplifying and surfacing their security methods and are improving the developer experience with better tools and support. Google is not perfect, far from it; for everything great that Android O looks to be, it also needs a lot of work before it is “primetime” ready.
But Google I/O 17’ was the turning point, in my mind, of Google from a company with scattered and splintered visions, to one with a more singular idea of making its services better for its users, instead of throwing more of them at the problem.
What do you think about Google’s shift with their 2017 I/O event? What are you looking forward to the most, and what do you dislike? Sound off in the comments!