Every Google I/O, we get to see some impossibly cool shit from Google that, it frequently turns out, actually was impossible (at least in the practical, scalable sense of the word “possible”). That’s not to say the company intends to mislead — far from it. I/O is a playground for the incredibly ambitious and often financially untenable experiments from a company that has more money than it is reasonable for a normal person to comprehend in anything but a purely mathematical and utterly abstract sense. The kind of money that could feasibly send not just one, but an entire colony of chimpanzees to space — each in separate rockets — dressed in adorable gold lamé suits with matching limited edition Rolexes and not incur a quarterly balance sheet impact worse than a particularly nasty EU regulatory fine. That kind of money.
I/O can often feel like it straddles the line between genuine ambition and Googly vaporware.
So, it’s easy to say that any given I/O represents the most ambitious, the most outlandish, or the most potentially-far-reaching effort from Google to date. Be it wearable technology like Jacquard, radar tricks like Soli, or Google’s wildly cool but ultimately totally impractical Loon (… or, you know, removing objects from a picture), I/O can often feel like it straddles the line between genuine ambition and Googly vaporware. But with I/O 2021, a few sideshow science experiments aside, something unusual is undeniably in the air: A serious focus on serious change. Changes that will actually matter in the next few years. And that will affect the products you and I actually use.
You’d be right to call this shift as decidedly Apple in spirit.
Google has redesigned Android’s software aesthetic nearly from the ground up. It’s offering users and developers seemingly unprecedented control over how their software looks and feels, but within the strictures of a framework that is defined by its limits, rather than its flexibilities. It seems more concerned than ever with facilitating unity and visual harmony over pretenses of being a platform provider simply acting as a canvas on which to paint. You’d be right to call this shift as decidedly Apple in spirit. Material You, as Google is calling its new design language, is as much about homogenization as it is personalization. Or, as Google’s (in my opinion, wrongly!) retired Android mantra went: Together, not the same.
Whether Google can achieve its vision for the platform is another question entirely, and one I won’t seek to answer here. But as the Android ecosystem coalesces among an increasingly small circle of brands and partners, Google likely sees an opportunity to unite those remaining players around its chief objective: Unseating Apple from its unchallenged reign of ecosystem supremacy. At I/O this year, Google took a massive step toward realizing material (no pun intended) progress there, by uniting the previously warring Wear OS, Tizen, and Fitbit tribes into a single wearable software federation. How that platform will work and feel in practice remains to be seen. But it shows that, for once, Google has the strategic and financial clout necessary to bend partners into alignment with its larger vision.
This wearable alliance flies directly in the face of the notion that Google has lost control of its platforms.
No doubt, flagging Fitbit sales and unfavorable Apple Watch comparisons made teaming up a far more enticing proposition for all parties involved, but in a tech media obsessed with Google’s capital “F” Fragmentation, this wearable alliance flies directly in the face of the notion that Google has lost control of its platforms. On the contrary: all signs point to Google having more muscle than ever, and that it is now exercising that strength to the benefit of those who cannot hope to take on Apple alone.
Take Android TV (now Google TV) — while I’d hardly call the software “beloved,” it is undeniably successful. Competitors like Roku and Fire TV enjoy legitimate popularity in the US, but globally, Android TV is quickly and quietly becoming the de facto choice for many television manufacturers and set top box providers. I personally have little doubt that the likes of Samsung and LG will eventually come around on the platform, as it offers a turnkey solution that is easily globally adapted — unlike Roku or Amazon’s Fire TV. Both Korean manufacturers have time and again proven to be their own worst enemies in the realm of software (and at times in LG’s case, even hardware), and as proper voice controls and the reliable performance of intensive applications like cloud gaming become more basic consumer expectations down the line, those failings will inevitably rear their ugly heads.
While Apple’s TV box has its own bespoke streaming service and significant accolades in the media, its platform remains limited to one piece of hardware, while Google’s is distributed on dozens of brands and hundreds of products, from cable boxes to streaming rigs to soundbars to the TVs themselves. As that list grows, so does Google’s broader power over the TV hardware industry globally, and there’s no sign Apple’s doing much of anything to catch up (we’re still waiting for that Apple-actually-a-TV, any day now).
It is difficult to overstate Google’s first-mover advantage with cars, as the automotive world moves at a positively glacial pace.
Automotive is another sector where Google’s power is rapidly outpacing Apple and other competitors — its Android Automotive partners grow by the year, and includes globally huge names like Ford, GM, and Stellantis (formerly PSA and FCA — which include the marks Peugeot, Alfa Romeo, Citroen, Fiat, Chrysler, Dodge, RAM, and Jeep). Expect that list to keep getting longer: As electrification eats into already slim mass market vehicle margins, manufacturers will be eager to offload more and more of their software support to reliable partners who can deliver on consumer expectations with services like, you know, Google Maps. At I/O 2021, Google continued to cement this advantage, and added yet deeper integration for its projected Auto platform to additional vehicles (contrary to popular belief, very few OEMs remain CarPlay only these days). Plans for phone-based keyless entry have lagged slightly behind Apple, but I don’t believe Cupertino’s advantage here will be long-lived: Globally, Android is simply more popular, and that will dictate carmakers’ decisions.
This is not to mention the countless cars out running software based on Android, but which is not officially supported by Google (like the entire current Hyundai, Kia, and Honda lineups). The number of cars out there running iOS in any form, at last count, stands at zero. It is difficult to overstate Google’s first-mover advantage with cars, as the automotive world moves at a positively glacial pace — vehicles are planned with lifecycles of 7, 10, or even 12 years. What may look like an early head-start for Google is actually the culmination of deals years in the making which are only now bearing their earliest fruits. I have zero confidence in Apple’s ability to close this gap in the next decade; it’s simply not feasible.
I/O 2021 is all about the consolidation of Google’s immense power.
Google’s dominance in some sectors has been quietly building over the course of years (televisions and cars), and loudly in others (smartphones). While the media tends to focus on the products where software is a deep and substantive interactive part of the user experience — be it tablets, phones, or laptops — Google has been building itself up as the provider of software that matters to the companies building products where software is traditionally a very unsexy subject. With its new united front into the world of fitness and wearables, I believe there is a very good chance that subtle dominance will once again assert itself, even if the consumer attention it receives isn’t proportional to the impact it has on an industry I anticipate it will now much more deeply affect.
I/O 2021 is all about the consolidation of Google’s immense power: A statement there is one best Android for phones, one best Android for wearables, one best Android for cars, and one best Android for TVs. If Google can keep up this momentum, there’s a real chance that magical, intangible Ecosystem — of your things just working together — could arrive sooner than you think. And that’s the kind of technological change that matters in practice, not just well-produced keynotes.