Google is done playing catch-up. Today they're setting the agenda: With Android Froyo, Google TV, mobile ads and streaming media, Google isn't just matching Apple—they're taking the lead.
The Google I/O conference has been dizzyingly dense, with announcements from nearly every corner of Google's ever-expanding apparatus. The meatiest news comes direct from Google's most intense battlefronts: Android Froyo (version 2.2); a bevy of clever new cloud services; and a mobile ad platform paired with Google TV marching into battle with competing products from Microsoft, and much more pointedly, Apple.
Google's last 18 months have been a period of frantic catchup, in which we saw Android reach feature parity with iPhone OS, the Android Market explode, and Google's confidence slowly build. Apple had been setting the terms of the battle, baiting Google into action. The competition was fierce, but the fight was on Apple's terms.
Google's tired of that. In the space of two days, they've leapfrogged Apple spectacularly: They've matched Apple's mobile OS in predictable ways, and embarrassed it in others (Flash on mobiles may not be as horrific as Apple has implied); they've invaded the living room with a dedication and vigor that makes Apple TV look like a jokey experiment; they've steamrolled the mobile ad market with as solid a platform as Apple's and, more importantly, hundreds of thousands of advertisers; they've taken massive steps into the cloud, and into streaming—the kind of stuff nerds talk about, but didn't expect to see so soon.
How great is Google's Vic Gundotra? Well-spoken, quick on his feet, and able to take swipes at Apple without seeming snide. (It helps that he chose to attack Apple primarily on a feature-to-feature basis, although there were plenty of references to philosophical differences, too.) Somehow Gundotra managed to give an entire presentation filled with attacks on Apple—notably the iPad compared to the iPhone, although that could have been simply because the iPad is the fastest Apple Touch device—without seeming whiny or overreactive. That's a coup.
While the entire I/O keynote today was extremely strong, Gundotra was sorely missed when he handed over the mic to other Googlers as they described Google TV. Google is staffed by nerds and it's to their credit that they put those nerds out in front of the public. But the near disaster of the Google TV demo showed, when a live demo goes off the rails, you need someone with the charm to recover gracefully. Gundotra is that person. (Even though he mispronounces "Froyo".) – JJ
"We discovered something cool: It's called the internet."
We've spilled a lot of ink over Android's lack of media syncing, and what seemed like an half-assed online sync system. The pieces just didn't add up to a whole. There was no need to sync to a desktop for most of your data, but there was no easy, slick way to transfer media. Apps were handled exclusively on the phones' App Market apps, which was a pain. The experience was broken, so people complained. Why couldn't we just have an iTunes-style app, at least?
Well, now we know. With Android Froyo, apps are synced wirelessly between your desktop web browser and your phone, music is streamed from your home PC to your handset over 3G, and instructions—map directions, search terms, web pages and potential all kinds of other stuff—can be zapped to your handset from a desktop browser. Sync as Apple defines it suddenly looks tired and clumsy. The new sync is instant, it's less redundant, it makes sense. And the new sync belongs to Google.
It's the Ads, Stupid
Aside from the requisite technical hiccups, Google's presentation today was surprisingly assured. And never was it more assured than during the AdSense mobile presentation. Here we saw Google reveal something a lot like what Jobs showed with iAds, right down to the "users don't like to leave their apps" mantra.
But Apple's presentation was about a new ad platform, which let's be frank: Ugh. You've got a pretty framework for ads, Apple? Users don't care because, well, we hate ads. Devs weren't too excited, because Apple's system was new, unproven and, well, not terribly interesting.
Google's presentation was more shrewd: They didn't have to linger on the mechanism of the ads, because for Google, AdSense mobile is just a bridge for their hundreds of thousands of preexisting advertisers, to every phone the company touches. When focusing on these gadget and product side of things, it's easy to forget that Google is foremost an advertising company. Apple can present pretty ad platforms all they want, but Google has a proven record of selling.
Apple TV, Blindsided
Apple TV withered not for lack of potential, but for lack of ambition. It's as if Apple decided to invade our living rooms, built the box they need to do it, then gave up when it wasn't a wild, immediate success. In doing so, they squandered a multi-year head start.
Google TV is a markedly different product than Apple TV—more like TiVo's latest box than Apple's crippled Mac Mini—but that's only because Google is taking a much more aggressive tack. Instead of a single box to supplement your TV, Google wants to take it over. They want to combine TV and the internet in a real way, not with token widgets or content stores. They want app devs, hardware partners, content partners and search traffic, which for us, translates to apps, tons of hardware choices, a multitude of viewing options and a real window to the internet. Where Apple TV had iTunes, Google TV will have Amazon, Netflix, YouTube and Hulu. Where Apple TV had a walled-off repository of downloaded, paid content, Google will have a massive selection of content, free and paid, complementing your regular TV channels, not stubbornly isolated from them.
Google Comes of Age
In the past, Google has always been late to the party—and they rarely outpaced Apple. The iPhone set the tone and terms for the mobile wars, with iTunes and the App Store looming large over every newcomer, including Android. Apple TV came out in 2007. The iPad is the standard to which every new tablet will be measured. Through their successes, Apple has defined a vision: It's a company that loves control, that changed the meaning and importance of "apps," and which sees itself dominating nearly every aspect of its users' technological lives. It's a vision that ignores the cloud, except when it can't. And it's a vision that has an expiration date.
Google, too, has a hunger for domination, but they've finally got vision of their own to accompany it: A vision of cellphones and desktops connected seamlessly—revolutionarily, magically—over the internet; a vision of media that streams when you need it, and disappears when you don't; a vision that sees TV as an extension of the internet, not simply a dumb screen.
Google's got a ton of work to do. Android is fragmented, and huge share of the handsets people own today will never take advantage of Froyo's new features. Any new TV product takes years to filter into the average living room. Media streaming is an inevitability, but the infrastructure isn't there to fully realize it, and what Google showed off today doesn't address everything. (The is no video component to their new Simplify Media-based music streaming software, for now.) But listening to Google's newly emboldened Vic Gundotra after a particularly uninspired series of Jobsnotes, peering into each company's future, I see Google stepping out ahead—and with one impressive lead.