I’ve been reading a lot of the summaries of Google IO on Ars and a few other places. I find Google’s evolution quite intriguing. While I think there’s always a danger to judge Google (or Apple) in terms of rumors, I think it fair to try and infer their product strategy from their actions and announcements. First off I think at this stage we have to acknowledge that Android is every bit a competitor to Apple. Not just because of the success of Samsung in selling Android products1 but especially because of the drastically improved UI quality of all of Google’s apps and services. Google Drive as a successor to Google Docs is astoundingly improved, for example. But Google’s apps on iOS are every bit the equal of their Android apps and often are even better.2 Most significantly I think what Google learned was important the past year or so was to focus on UI and practical ease of use. That is Google is now focusing in on experience rather than just features the way engineers thought of features. As many have noted the past year, Google appears to be getting good at UI faster than Apple is getting good at server infrastructure. That ought to worry Apple — although we’ll see if Apple improves in a few weeks at WWDC.
Here are a few thoughts from the announcements at Google IO so far. Note that I’m just going by the announcements. It may be that when these are released as actual products to the public some of my concerns may already be addressed.
First the Google Maps announcements. I’m pretty excited about improvements to Google’s directions. The dirty little secret lost in all the commotion about how bad Apple’s maps were was that neither really gave fantastic directions. Google updated their maps to new roads or closed roads far more regularly than Apple does3 but Google often misses left turns on busy roads when a traffic light makes that the quickest route. Google’s long had a big advantage over Apple for its building data. Apple only has 3D buildings for a few areas and usually the nature of the buildings are unlabeled or mislabeled. Especially in college areas Google has been fantastic here and it looks like Google is expanding that knowledge to more buildings. While I expect Apple to catch up here I also think Apple hasn’t allocated enough resources and it’ll take them several years. I’m also hoping that park and forestry data is improved in Google. At least around my region there were quite a few errors about boundaries. (Google has my house being within a National Forest despite being in a city)
What I worry about is “Google Offers” which is now integrated with their map app. I suspect we’re going to see Google try and monetize their maps a lot more than in the past. If they aren’t careful that may alienate many of their users. It’ll be interesting to see how they do this in practice. It’s a fine line to walk.
The announcements I found missing with Google Maps are my long standing complaints. City views are too cluttered compared to Apple Maps. When zoomed out you simply see far too many minor streets although Google displays the smaller streets in a readable fashion unlike Apple. A big plus. I also didn’t hear any announcements if rural driving was improved. Often in the country you are driving big distances on minor roads. Right now both Apple and Google when you zoom out a long ways make these country roads impossible to see. While both suck, Apple surprisingly is better for rural driving.4
Finally I didn’t hear if Google Maps will finally integrate with iOS contacts. Right now I use a hack to sync unidirectionally my contacts to Google Contacts just so I can search for people in their map app. While I understand why both Apple and Google want to push people to their contact solutions, I would like a bit more recognition of where people have their contacts in iOS. Of course for Android this is less of an issue, but my Android device isn’t on a data plan.
The other big news was Google announcing APIs akin to Apple’s Game Center. Game Center has long been the ugly stepchild of Apple. It’s been neglected, never works well, and really doesn’t do a lot of things you’d expect it to. Looking at Game Center compared to what you can do on Xbox Live was embarrassing. Yet Android never even had something equivalent. Given how games dominate both app stores it’s kind of shocking how long this neglect has lasted. I’ll save my criticisms of Apple’s Game Center for my WWDC hopes post. But I’m very impressed that Google is paying attention to game developers. First they are giving game developers a lot of help with the different size and resolution devices. I’m not a game developer so I don’t know how much this will help in practice. Still, the Game Center equivalent is huge and it would be pretty hard for Google to do worse than Apple. Indeed given Google’s expertise with the cloud I think it fair to say one shouldn’t expect the kind of problems Apple’s Game Center faced when Letterpress actually used Game Center. Then usability ground to a halt since Apple hadn’t really designed the service to scale to games actually using it.
Sadly little was announced about the details from what I could see. Hopefully Google learns from Xbox Live but integrates their Game Center with Gmail and Contacts along with their messaging tools. Which brings us to my final point.
Google’s messaging has been a mess. They have had a slew of products ranging from their chat service based on Jabber to Google Voice’s SMS features to their more recent FaceTime like service, Google Hangouts, that is part of Google+. I think it fair to say that Google’s become much more focused the past year. They just released an iOS version of Google Hangouts which in many ways is far more useful than FaceTime in that it handles up to 11 concurrent people in a conference chat. Facebook recently issued a very chat-centric update to their app which met with mixed results. While it’s not not clear how Google is going to focus and unify their communication services it seems clear they will. What’s a bit weird is how much is being put into Chrome.
Chrome is the big question for me. It seems clear that somehow Google is going to try and unify the Chrome OS and the Chrome browser and presumably with Android. Exactly what that means isn’t clear. Yet oddly they are putting their Siri like features with an emphasis more on Chrome than Google Now. Whether that means searching in Chrome will get aspects of Google Now or something different isn’t clear to me. If there’s a worry with Google’s focus it is in figuring out its Chrome OS strategy. As I’ve long said, voice search is primarily of use when you can’t use your hands. In such cases most of the time you are trying to do things rather than do searches.5 Yet most reviews focus on doing traditional searches for information via voice. I just can’t see that as being that useful both because even Google Now doesn’t do a great job there but also because those tend not to be the types of things you’re doing when driving. Primarily you want directions, weather, create reminders or calendar events, and to contact various contacts via phone or message. Yet the majority of the innovations Google is pushing at IO seem related more to search than functionality. I will say that Google’s emphasis on TV searches is useful. Apple could really improve there. However I also think TV viewing in traditional ways (i.e. by time) is becoming less and less useful to Google’s customers.6
An other announcement is that Google is competing more with iCloud with Google Drive. As I’ve noted Google Drive is a huge improvement over their older Google Docs. This appears to primarily be about data hiding and key value storage. That’s very useful and Google is smartly making it easily cross platform. Google’s service reportedly does inter-application sharing although many expect this to be announced by Apple at WWDC this year. Perhaps not surprising Google isn’t doing database syncing the way Apple tried so unsuccessfully (much to the disgruntlement of many developers who took Apple at their word that it worked). I’m surprised it’s taken Google this long to offer these services. It’s important not only to fend off Apple but also fend off upstart Dropbox who many expect is going to offer more services that compete with Google. It’ll be most interesting to see what fixes and improvements Apple offers to iCloud this year — especially for developers — and compare them with what Google offers.
Overall I think Google’s really got some exciting stuff. This won’t just be of benefit to Android users but nearly all of them are available in excellent applications for iOS. How far you go into the Google ecosphere probably varies. However I’m really quite excited by the change of focus to experience by Google. I still have some worries, primarily how Chrome OS and Android get unified. But Apple really will have to both improve their services but also really have some strong innovations in order to compete.
- I should note I have a 7″ Samsung Note 2. ↩
- Apple’s been horrible here. I’ve submitted several corrections and none have been fixed yet whereas Google has had the new roads or changes for months. I really hope Apple’s not thinking it can only update its maps data the same time as it updates its OSes. ↩
- See my comparison of Google Maps and Apple Maps from a few months back. While I gave the crown to Apple, it was very close, and Google beat Apple on many fronts. But overall I thought both still had a long way to go. ↩
- See my views on this in my comparison of Siri and Google Voice Search last fall. I should note that was written before Google Now came out for iOS so it doesn’t address Google’s improvements this winter. I’ll do a followup once the latest version of Siri is released. ↩
- I gave up on regular TV more than a year ago and don’t miss it a bit. It’s all Netflix and the occasional download for me now. ↩