Recently Google held their annual Google I/O developer’s conference in San Francisco and at the keynote for that event there were 4 very interesting things that were announced indicating a new focus by Google; a focus likely to have significant impact on the mobile landscape.
Jelly Bean and Project Butter
It should come as no surprise that the first big new thing Google wanted to announce was Jelly Bean, the next latest and greatest version of the Android operating system. Google referred to the UI enhancements made in this version as “Project Butter” and proceeded to demonstrate a smooth, flowing, super-responsive UI experience that was designed to “feel” as smooth as butter. If anyone remembers the first version of Android released by Google, it’s amazing how much of a transformation Google as a company has gone through and how much more focused they are now on consumer-oriented design. Google is an engineering company, founded by engineers and run by engineers. It is no small feat for a company with their background to become so design focused in such a short period of time but over the last few years they have made significant investments and organizational changes in order to deliver consumer ready products. The first version of Android was almost universally panned for its lack of a cohesive design and Google relied on its hardware partners to “skin” Android with a more aesthetically appealing look and feel that could be dropped on top of the core OS. That strategy had limited success while exacerbating the fragmentation problem Android now faces. Fast forward and now we see Google announce Jelly Bean with accompanying Nexus hardware (both tablet and phone), taking direct responsibility for providing a first class user experience that matches or betters anything Apple is doing with iOS. It’s a remarkable shift, not to mention a nod to the success of Apple’s strategy, seeing Google emulate Apple with a product focus and focused design.
Of course Google still has that fragmentation problem I mentioned. Apple provides OS updates, either over the air (OTA) or through iTunes, regardless of whether your device is locked or unlocked, was purchased through a telco or purchased from the Apple Store. The result of this is that iOS users upgrade quickly and consistently to new OS versions. With Jelly Bean, Google is set to push OTA updates to owners of unlocked hardware, but many Android device owners find themselves dependent on their mobile carrier or hardware manufacturer to provide them with OS updates and often these updates simply aren’t made available. (It’s not necessarily in the best interest of the telco’s to provide customers with OS updates since they need to continually push customers into new subsidized hardware as a way of locking customers into long-term contracts. Nor is it in the best interest of hardware manufacturers to provide OS updates since they want to move customers into the latest hardware for sale.) How does this end up playing out? In roughly the same timeframe, Apple saw 61% of iOS users upgrade to iOS 5.1 while Google had only 2.9% of Android users in that time adopt Ice Cream Sandwich.
What does this mean going forward? Just as Google started to take more control over how manufacturers could skin Android, look for Google to start taking more control over how and when users get OS updates for their device. Google is keenly aware of the fragmentation problem. And as we saw Google proudly display their new design chops at Google I/O this year, look for them to continue to emulate Apple’s success to address other problem areas in the Android universe.
In addition to bringing a new design focus with the launch of Jelly Bean, Google is also bringing to the game the core things they do well and attempting to leverage their strengths in the mobile space. Google is great at search. Google is great at big data and cloud computing. Apple may have shown the Google the way with Siri, but Google is taking the lesson to the heart of Android. At its core, Siri is voice activated search. Every time you ask Siri a question all you’re really doing is a voice activated search against Apple’s servers and, let’s face it, no one does search better than Google so it was natural for Google bring that same kind of voice activated functionality into the core offerings of Android. First we saw Apple launch their new map service for iOS and then a couple of weeks later we saw Google launch their answer to Siri. It’s going to be interesting watching these two giants slug it out. Consumers are the real victors in this battle.
Google Play and the Nexus 7 Tablet
The second interesting thing announced at Google I/O was around the new Google Nexus 7” tablet and, equally important, it’s integration with Google Play. Google Play is a rebranding of the Android Market and Google Drive, Google’s answer to the iTunes store. It’s your one stop store for renting and buying movies and tv shows, downloading music and books and of course finding apps for your Android device. What’s significant here is how important the content side of the equation has become. Android tablets have failed to make the same in roads in the tablet market that Android phones did in the phone market, however the Kindle Fire recently showed the way. Amazon launched the Kindle Fire, a 7” Android powered tablet, as their counter to the iPad and the Kindle Fire has quickly become very popular, in large part because Amazon, like Apple, has a tight integration between the hardware and the content making is very easy for consumers to get content onto their device. The Kindle brand is all about easy access to books and periodicals. With the Kindle Fire, Amazon is expanding their offering by giving consumers a device that can also browse the internet and play movies and tv shows. In fact, the success of the Kindle Fire has sparked a flurry rumors that Apple is preparing their own answer to the Kindle Fire in the form of a $199 7” iPad. However Apple is not the only one who noticed the success of the Kindle Fire and the new 7” Google Nexus tablet with Google Play is clearly aimed at competing with the iTunes/iPad Apple juggernaut.
Google in the Living Room
With content playing such an important role it should also come as no surprise that Google sought to provide customers with a means of enjoying Google Play content in the living room. Let’s face it most of time when you download a movie or tv show the place you really want to watch that content is on the big screen tv in your living room. Apple has Apple TV and Airplay to solve this problem. Download a movie to your iPad and easily stream it to your television. Start watching a movie on your tv and finishing watching it on your phone. Apple’s super slick advertising campaign shows us how easy it all can be which brings us to the third really interesting thing announced at Google I/O, the Nexus Q. The Nexus Q is a tiny little Android powered media Orb that streams Google Play content direct to your tv and lets you control everything from your Android powered phone or tablet. The announcement and demo was a little like watching an Apple commercial or keynote, showing us again how Google is taking a page out of Apple’s playbook and providing their customers with a deeply integrated experience where hardware and software and content all work together in a cohesive fashion to deliver a simple unified user experience. The lesson here is that winning market share in the mobile OS space is about providing people with a means to get the most out of their device and that’s about apps and that’s about movies and tv shows and that’s about music and books and delivering all of it in a simple, easy, fun and flexible manner. And it’s not just Apple and Google who will be playing this game. Microsoft will need to bring the same level of content integration to their products as they fight to establish themselves in the mobile and tablet space. They have the Xbox 360 and Windows Phone 8 and Windows 8 Tablet edition so Microsoft has all the pieces; it’s just a matter of putting them together.
When Steve Jobs came back to Apple the company was in serious trouble,Jobs faced the daunting task of finding the way forward. He did this, in part, by giving the company a new focus on a trimmed down product line and, in part, by guiding the company to release the iPod. Jobs led Apple to help create the digital music market by ushering in the development of iTunes and the iPod. The iPod put a thousand songs in your pocket and became a huge success for Apple. The iPhone came into being because as Apple sought to retain market share control of the digital music market Jobs worried about what new product could possible cannibalize iPod sales and the answer he came up with was the mobile phone. He worried that a phone with the same ability to store a thousand songs would mean an end to iPod sales and that is the reason why Apple developed and ultimately released the iPhone. The iPhone has indeed cannibalized iPod sales. Luckily for Apple they make the iPhone and thus they’ve cannibalized iPod sales with sales that contribute even greater profits to Apple’s coffers. What does this have to do with announcements at the Google I/O conference? Google Glass has to the potential to be, to the iPhone, what the iPhone was to the iPod. If Google Glass can deliver on its promise, why do I need a phone in my pocket anymore? Until recently Google Glass had seemed like a very cool yet very far off concept but the fourth really interesting announced at Google I/O was that attendees could pre-order a developer’s version of Google Glass. The fact that a developer version is ready to ship tells us that Google Glass is a lot closer to being a real product, ready for real consumers, than we may have originally thought. This should be worrying news for Apple. I suspect Apple has their own plans for the future and has already anticipated some of the ways the iPhone or iPad markets can be cannibalized. If they haven’t they may be in trouble because Google has definitely stepped up their game in a number of areas.
From Sony to Apple to…
Once upon a time Sony was the premier consumer electronics brand. Sony changed the world more than once with their products. They changed the way we listen to music. They changed the way we watch movies and play video games. Today Apple is the premier consumer electronics brand. Apple is what Sony was, a company whose products have changed the world more than once. The question is whether Google is now positioned to dethrone Apple? A couple of years ago I would have laughed at the suggestion. I would have laughed because Google is not an electronics company. They make their money from search, not from selling Nexus hardware manufactured by Asus or Samsung. And I would have laughed because to be a premier consumer brand means have a focus on design and Google has always been an engineering company with little focus on design. However this year’s Google I/O keynote showed a new focus at Google. There is an opportunity for Google to be more than a search engine. The question is where they go from here, how Apple responds and whether any other players are going to step up and get in the game.