Why the pundits are wrong about Google I/O

Google’s personality can be hard to peg. Which might be why pundits and industry analysts are keen to try to affix a label of “the new Microsoft” or “the new Apple”, or other such nonsense to the strange machinations going on at Google.

Yes, Google sprawls like Microsoft. Yes, they are driven by a nearly-religious zeal like Apple.

But this week, they came into their own, and it’s very exciting stuff.

Everyone seems focused on the thought that Google stepped out at I/O as an alternate-universe Apple, with charts of Google’s anti-Apple stable of products. TV! FroYo Android phones! Mobile Ads! Music stores!

But developers saw a different story unfold at I/O.

Even though Steve Jobs is convinced that Google is trying to steal Apple’s lunch money, they’re not even at the same playground. While Apple is busy making technology desirable and friendly, Google is about the work of making that technology smarter.

Google’s I/O conference highlights

Here are a few examples of company-defining developments at Google IO:

Chrome App Store

They’re serious about the browser as OS.

What it means: Google sees operating systems as a dying art. To them, the OS is just a means of connecting together hardware so you can access cloud-based services. Unlike Apple or Microsoft, Google’s betting big on the shrinking footprint of OSX, Windows, and even Android.

If Google gets its way, the OS is going to be as obscure and irrelevant to you in the future as the underlying operating system of your DVR is now.

Google Storage for Developers

Pretty much anyone I’ve met using Amazon’s S3 storage has also used EC2 computing. And it’s a huge pain in the ass. So, although Google Storage for Developers is not too different from S3, its ties to Google’s App Engine are going to change things. Getting an application up and running used to mean setting up a machine with an operating system appropriate for your dev environment, installing database software, getting version control, blah, blah, blah…

Often, this involved hours (or tens of hours) of work before it was feasible to even start coding. Google App Engine is the opposite: Just submit your Java app (for me, JRuby), or Python (hello, Django) and boom, live application. And scalable, unlimited pay-as-you-go storage means that Google can now play the role of IT operations. This concept is not new (Heroku provides a friendly layer between Ruby and Amazon S3), but it’s going to become the basis for thousands and thousands of new applications, since any developer can now afford to turn an idea into reality.

Google Web Font API

Ask any CSS dev/designer about web font standards, and you’ll get a :rolleyes icon (given that you ask over chat, of course). Between variations in user-installed fonts and licensing issues in others, you wind up with about 4 or 5 fonts that are truly safe to use on the Web. That’s insane!

The Web Font API is a no-brainer, but only Google has got the cash and chutzpah to put it out there. Designers get a wider array of safe web fonts without a ton of work. Font designers can get exposure if Google decides to add their work to the library. Users can (potentially) get better-looking websites. This is so desperately needed and immediately useful that my former employer went from “never heard of it” to “essential to our site” in one day.

Prediction API

People are calling this “Skynet v.0.1”, and there may be good reason: it’s basically API access to learning computers. (Aside: this makes me think of Arnold Schwarzenegger saying “learning computer” and “neural-net processor”.)

It’s so out there that I still don’t know how it works: but as I understand it, it’s this: You feed it “Red, yellow, blue, red, yellow, blue, red, yellow”, and it’ll come back with “blue”. Or “one, two, three,” and it’ll come back with “four”.

This is scary stuff to me because it seems to represent the first step toward domination by our Cylon overlords, but there are lots of immediate applications. Historically, recommendation engines have been the exclusive territory of deep-pocketed e-commerce sites, but now any developer can have access to the thinking of the human-computer hybrids that are suspended in goo at Google headquarters.

Latitude API

There are other location-based services. And there are APIs to those services. But the Latitude API is so powerful and dead-simple to use that even I can do cool stuff with it, and I’m a neophyte. It’s a REST API that lets me feed in (or ask about) a person’s location, and get back everything from direction to altitude.

Location-aware was already a big deal (Apple, for their part, is doing great location-based API work for developers on the iPhone), but Latitude makes it universal.

What does all this mean for the future?

No one knows yet, since Google has a habit of throwing things to the wall to see what sticks. But you can look at the services above and mash them up with other apps: Using my location info from Latitude & Google Maps, an app checks Yelp for local listings, then references my Foursquare history and runs the results through the Prediction API to see which restaurant I’m most likely to want to eat at, then locates my friends in the area, and uses Twilio to auto-text them to ask them to lunch. If you had the desire and the chops, you could host that on Google App Engine for next to nothing.

With the depth and complexity of what Google churns out from day to day, I bet they have a tough time not looking down their noses at Apple’s work as child’s play. Oh, you have facial recognition in your photos app now? That’s adorable.

And before thinking, “of course Google can do all this stuff, they’re humongous”, think of the kind of rabid passion and laser focus that is required to pull off ideas of this magnitude, no matter the size of the company. Microsoft can’t stop screwing up its own best ideas (Courier, we hardly knew ye) due to infighting among its teeming middle-management ranks.

The biggest mistake Apple could make now would be to try to hunt on Google’s own turf (i.e. heading into the cloud). Google was “born in the briar patch”, so to speak. They and Apple could accomplish so much by cooperating instead of kicking dirt in each others’ eyes, but that’s a topic for another article.

Here’s how I would describe the 3 companies:

Apple is a pyramid, like the Luxor in Vegas, with a large base of people who taper to support one beam of light, one man’s vision. And that’s great (until a successor is needed).

Google is a series of pillars. Their biggest one supports most of the weight, but they are constantly building other pillars. They’re all building in the same direction and with the same purpose, but they’re more loosely federated.

Microsoft is just a mess. That’s all. It’s clear they don’t understand why they were ever successful in the first place, and unlike most who don’t understand their history, they’re doomed to not repeat it.

Incidentally… did you see Google’s “Pac-Man 30th Anniversary” homepage recently? A playable, fully-HTML-graphics, pixel-perfect version of Pac-Man is an astounding technical feat (certainly beyond Namco’s own capability), not to mention a lot of fun. It’s meticulously programmed: Pinky’s trickier, more aggressive personality is intact, and ol’ Pac is slower while chomping on dots than when the lane is clear. Google knew that this icon that shaped so many of us as young geeks deserved no less a tribute. That may be more telling of their corporate personality than anything at I/O.

Apple’s bringing sexy back.

iPhone 4G? Are we not calling it the iPhone HD yet? That nomenclature is beyond confusing, because, unlike the iPods, whose generations we stopped counting around 5.5, the 3G iPhone is named after the network, and is only a second-gen device. In addition, the “4G iPhone” doesn’t seem to actually function on 4G networks.

That rant aside, it’s been a big day for nerds. Setting aside the douchetacular way this has been handled by the blog networks (until my next post, anyway), the thoroughly unofficial unveiling of the iPhone HD is exciting stuff.

Facts first: this is the new iPhone. No Apple prototype makes it that far into the field without it being a production sample. Seams and all. WYSIWYG.

Apple was keen on showing off how the new iMac’s screen has an “infinity edge”, like a trendy bathtub. Of course, it’s all aesthetic; under the infinite expanse of glass is a bezel as thick as ever. Still, this edge-to-edge glass is a welcome replacement for my endlessly scratchable (and dated-feeling) chrome bezel.

The glass back is stunning. Many are saying it’ll carry a signal upgrade, but someone will have to explain to me how glass or high-gloss ceramic is more radio transparent than plastic.

No. What this represents is Apple realigning function with form, after letting function run the show for two years.

When the iPhone was announced, it wasn’t just a shiny new gadget. It was a tiny, sexy monolith. Aluminum was slippery and impaired the signal, but not the signal it sent to your brain (and your friends): I own a premium device.

The 3G changed that. Much like comparing the 1G iPod with its eventual descendants, you get the sense that the latter devices were meant for mass production and consumption, with all its unsexy signs.

The iPhone 3G seems to accept that its eventual destination is a landfill, from the chintzier chrome buttons to the hollow sound of its thin plastic casing. For me, it’s enough to pine for the original, premium iPhone. For some crazies, it’s enough to custom-fabricate titanium replacement casings.

Some are calling the new iPhone an honorary Dieter-Rams-Era-Braun design, and I’m inclined to agree. It’s elegant, minimal, and every part seems to have been thought through in great detail. I love the simple, glass-aluminum-glass sandwich, the buttons, everything.

I also love that it’s thinner and flat: It can’t hide it’s bulk by tapering at the edges (which even the iPad does). It is what it is.

Some are saying that the battery is now user-replaceable, which makes sense. Apple loves to let third parties set up cottage industries around their products’ shortcomings, only to yank the rug out from under them in one surprise reveal.

Make no mistake: Apple has noticed that the only people not making money on iPhone batteries is Apple. They’d be all too happy to sell you a spare battery or two with your iPhone at $69 a pop.

That means that all those battery-case hybrids are three times irrelevant: they don’t fit, the iPhone needs less protection, and there’s no need for a dock-blocking (heh) battery backpack.

Speaking of case manufacturers, I’m so glad to be rid of invisible shields I could burst. I loathe those things. They cheapen the look and feel of my iPhone, discolor almost immediately, and turn into used Band-Aids in a matter of weeks. But the scratch-prone plastic case makes them an absolute necessity. The worst part is that they add $40 to the cost of every single iPhone I buy. Now, with a glass front and back, they’re toast.

The high-res screen was a gimme. I’m wondering how that’s going to work, though. Sure, existing software will look the same, but will developers need to create 3 versions of apps: 1 for iPhone, 1 for iPhone HD, and 1 for iPad? I’m sure Apple has an answer waiting in the wings as to how this isn’t going to fragment the market and create hell for developers.

For my part, going from using my iPad and my wife’s Droid makes the resolution on my iPhone feel downright woeful. At this point, it’s more of a “fix” than a feature to me.

I hope the front-facing camera does more than video chat. I don’t use it on my computer, And I don’t anticipate using it on my iPhone that often. It’s novel, but it’ll be up to the software to make it useful. And iChat just isn’t all that useful. (Now Skype, on the other hand…)

LED flash: super meh. Those are only useful in the absolutely most dire circumstance. I can’t wait to hear Scott Forstall get all bug-eyed and declare a new gold rush on LED flashlight apps.

The microSIM tells me that Verizon customers shouldn’t get their hopes up for a simultaneous launch with the AT&T version. Maybe someday. Maybe. On the other hand, Apple is punching AT&T in the face repeatedly with the iPad 3G “pay as you go, then stop paying whenever you want, easily” plan. That relationship sounds strained, at best.

I am satisfied enough by the iPad that I’m in no hurry for a higher-res iphone browsing experience, but the device itself. Oh my gosh, so sexy. It’s everything I miss about the original iPhone, stepped up.

June can’t come fast enough.

Is obsolescence becoming obsolete?

Today, Apple announced new MacBooks and MacBooks Pro (that’s right, I said MacBooks Pro). And I couldn’t care less.

I’ve got an 18-month-old Unibody MacBook Pro that I’ve dirtied, scratched, scraped, dropped, dented, and abused. And I honestly think it’ll be my main machine for at least 12 more months. And this is coming from a guy who used to upgrade every 6-8 months. What gives?

For one, I have an iPad. At 1 GHz and with 256MB of RAM, it sounds like it’s a ten-year-old computer, which is why you don’t see Apple bragging about the specs. But nobody really cares. I do nearly half of my computing on this machine now, and don’t find many occasions to open the laptop unless I’m at work.

Second, I bought an SSD. Forget gigahertz, the new standard is MBps. (And that’s even for those of us who care about such measurements.) Most people don’t yet realize that the reason they constantly see spinning beach balls isn’t that their computer is too slow, it’s that they’re relying on slow, inefficient, and increasingly crashy hard disks for storage.

After 2 failed hard disks in 3 months (admittedly, one was because I dropped my laptop), I opted for the Crucial RealSSD C300. It’s arguably the fastest SSD out there right now, and at $700 for 256GB, definitely in “early adopter” territory. Still, I would much, much rather have this upgrade than a new MacBook Pro. In daily life, things that took minutes now take seconds.

And it’s a confluence of these factors is breaking the traditional notion of “obsolete”. The tasks you ask of a computer are often small, like playing YouTube videos or word processing, and these are easily within the grasp of my iPad. But even the most demanding tasks like running Photoshop or editing a video can be done quite effectively on a 3-year-old laptop.

Do you remember a time when you cared about how many colors your monitor could display? It used to be that there was so much we wanted to display on a computer, but our hardware could only render one color, then sixteen, then 256, and then thousands. Then, about 10 years ago, we settled on “millions”, and never thought about it again.

I think that this time is approaching with processor speed. The gap is wider between “benchmarked speed” and “real-world speed” than ever. The Core i7 technology excites my inner geek, and I’d love to convert some video with it. But that’s not what I do on a day-to-day basis.

Intel has made the new processor inside the new MacBooks faster by a factor of two, by many benchmarks. But in the real world, my life would not improve by a factor of two. My “computing quality of life” might increase by 5%. That’s odd, because my solid state disk had a much bigger impact than 5%, and the vastly-less-powerful iPad has improved my computing life by at least a factor of two.

We’re now focused on removing bottlenecks like disk speed (using solid state disks) and RAM (by using 64-bit software to address more than 4GB), or even interface elements (think eliminating the mouse). My computing life is much faster, more efficient, and more fun than it was 18 months ago, and it has nothing to do with there being “Intel inside”.