Friday, June 27, 2014

Seamless: At I/O 2014, Google Delivers Context-Driven Design for a Signal-Driven World

I opted for watching the Google I/O developers' conference online this year, not because I didn't think that it wouldn't be interesting but it seemed that the focus was going to be more on immediate deliverables - most of which were pretty evident. Smart watches, autos, TVs, Chrome/Android integration - you could see all of these coming. No big hardware expected, but lots of tech talks.

That seems to be how I/O 2014 rolled this year - a very seamless presentation of "you can do this now" capabilities, all tied to products and services that will be coming from Google in the next few months. That's not to say that there weren't some impressive and visionary deliverables mapped out in the keynote and workshop sessions, but gone were surprise keynote presentations from future-forward +Sergey Brin on technologies like +Google Glass that are work-in-progress tools not likely tied to new deliverables targeted for later this year, though a cute cardboard virtual reality goggle headset - a swipe at Facebook's billions spent on Oculus Rift? - seemed to be a statement that long-term development of new platforms will be kept press-quiet at events such as I/O until there are real opportunities for developers to rock product platforms. It also meant that media-oriented services like +Google+ that have no real hooks for developers didn't get a single keynote mention, even though Google+ services such as Hangouts are likely to factor heavily into fall product introductions.

What did get the spotlight were major upgrades to Google's Android operating system coming this fall in its unmascotted "L" release to succeed Key Lime Pie. "L" has a few key upgrades that are likely to help it to power Google's signal-driven services strategy in the years ahead. The key change to "L" is that Android's guts that drive software have been completely revamped, trading out its Dalvik just-in-time Java environment for a new software engine called ART, which will be able to drive 64-bit applications of many kinds on processors from ARM, Intel and MIPS that are expected this fall on a variety of platforms later this year. Android also got a nifty upgrade to its applications interface toolkit, dubbed "Material Design," which provides a slickness across all Android devices that's clearly on at least a par with anything Apple or Microsoft have assembled. So we can expect that the top-notch phones, tablets, and, now, Google Wear and Android TV devices coming out soon will be no-excuses top performers and crowd pleasers for visually appealing apps and games..

Web apps on these devices and on +Google Chrome browsers and Chrome OS devices get an updated looks also courtesy of Google's new Polymer development toolkit for Web apps, which will allow Chrome-launched apps to look very similar to Material Design-based Android apps. The seamlessness of the Web/mobile experience is enhanced by integrated notifications - get your SMS/battery updates on your Chromebook, for example - and by updates to the Googlecast engine that will now enable content to be shared from mobile apps to TV screens easily via Chromecast.

Web apps in general didn't get strong emphasis in the keynote, but workshop sessions highlighted more tools that make it easier to make Web-based apps on Android platforms, supplemented by the ability to launch native mobile apps from mobile Chrome browsers. We're not quite yet to the point of having a Chrome-first mobile device beyond Chromebooks, but you can see that this evolution is marching on. Also higlighted was a preview of Android apps running on Chrome OS - the popular Evernote and Flipboard apps were shown, indicating that Google wants to fill the gaps between Web apps and native Android apps with Android software on Chrome OS, but hopefully convince apps makers that the Polymer toolkit will eventually make Web-first apps the key to success on both Chrome and Android. It's also a way to close the gaps between Chrome OS and Windows 8 - now popular Android apps like Skype not available in a Web format could run on Chrome OS, eliminating potential Windows 8 advantages for enterprise and education customers. Add in a preview of editing native Microsoft Office documents in Google's Docs editor - and then saving them back to a native Office format - and Microsoft no doubt will continue to have Chrome OS market share nightmares for a long time.

In terms of new platforms and products, Google Wear and Google Auto took the spotlight this year, new capabilities which emphasize that context driven by signals from sensors and semantic analysis of people's on-the-go lifestyles is a key component in driving Google's plan for profitability in the years ahead. Android Wear smart watches from Samsung and LG are now available for shipping on July 7th and the choice of one or the other was the biggest freebie for I/O attendees - with a rain check also for the upcoming Moto 360 Android Wear watch expected later this year, probably to debut alongside the upcoming Moto X+1 smart phone.

Android Wear devices are compatible with any Android device rnnning 4.3 Android or higher, so most current Android phones are good-to-go with Wear. Wear apps are out-of-the-pocket oriented notifications and services with touch and voice commands, aware of what mobile devices are nearby that your actions on Wear devices can complement. For example, fire up a recipe app on Android Wear and your nearby Android device will display the recipe details in a larger format. Scroll through the details on Wear, and the phone follows along. +Chris Pirillo and I had an exchange on Google+ in which he complained that wearables are redundant, and he's right - but it turns out that Google understands that people want redundancy and coordination as a key platform feature. Android as a platform is now less about specific devices and more about multi-device, seamless, signal-driven contextual experiences. driven by common APIs, software and development standards designed to make it easy for developers to write apps that adjust to other Android-equipped platforms and contexts easily and, often, automatically. Android Fit is a new apps development programme that can also take advantage of this seamless, context-driven environment, enabling health gadget suppliers to be a part of the Android ecosystem more easily with signal-driven products and services.

This combination of cross-platform integration, seamlessness and context was underscored in the debut of Android Auto, a new capability being integrated by more than 40 auto and device manufacturers starting with this fall's new car model introductions. Plug in your mobile Android phone or tablet into an Android Auto car an you get a screencast of travel-oriented apps and searches on to your auto's data display. Voice commands are activated by a button on Android Auto steering wheels, hopefully helping to increase safety while using and enjoying Android-delivered content. This is a very clever approach to auto integration, allowing auto-makers to use Chromecast-like screencasting to integrate Google-supplied content and services in their autos while allowing them to develop their own electronics independent of Google. Android's standard USB interface to auto electronics also means that a wide variety of cars and trucks will finally be released from the Apple-or-nothing mindset for smart phone integration - a key factor in global markets, including many places where Apple is less dominant than the U.S.

Speaking of global markets, Google SVP +Sundar Pichai announced the debut of Android One, a "pure" AOSP version of Android targeted for sub-$100 phones that are popular in developing nations. Like Google's premium +Nexus Android devices, Android One devices will feature regular AOSP updates directly from Google, helping to reduce the cost of developing software for these devices. However, unlike Nexus devices, Android One phones can be tailored to specific markets more easily, enabling Nexus One to enter countries where issues such as Internet filtering and banking regulations may affect how particular services are delivered. It will be interested to see if an intersection between Google's Project Ara modular phones and Android One creates new opportunities for sensor-driven services in these market that can drive economic opportunities.

The most media-intensive portion of the keynote was the debut of Android TV, the long-expected successor to Google TV. Android TV devices being introduced this fall will be equipped with a standard look and feel for both the command interface and the apps driving that interface - a much tighter regimen for development than exercised by Google TV. So although there will probably not be single, iconic devices such as Microsoft's Xbox One or Sony's PlayStation 4, there will be a similarly tight management of user expectations from the Android TV experience across devices from a wide range of manufacturers - including Sony, Philips and Sharp. Chromecast functionality is built in to Android TV, of course, and there's slick voice commands, cross-source content searching, curated content recommendations and drill-down information on movie stars and such courtesy of Google's Knowledge Graph search engine. If you saw screen shots of an Android TV prototype leaked earlier this year, there were few surprises overall

For folks who like remotes, this Android TV is a good package, though if you have a Chromecast already, there's not much you won't be able to do on your TV screen anyway, given Chromecast's new Android app screencasting. The main new factor in Android TV that could upset the content world is the ability of Android TV to support native multiplayer, multiscreen games via smart phones and tablets. The titles demoed at I/O were not heavy on fancy graphics, but with the graphics-intensive capabilities of Android "L" waiting in the wings and another demo of cutting-edge game graphics on Android "L" earlier in the keynote address, it's only a matter of time - and probably not much time - before game producers get more tuned into the Android bandwagon - just about the time that Apple will try to do likewise with its upgraded Apple TV offerings, no doubt.

There were previews of some other key upgrades to Google's cloud-based apps and storage services designed to appeal to enterprises and turnkey startups, and many of the sessions and workshops featured more future-forward topics such as robotics, but the overall focus of Google I/O 2014 was on helping developers to see the entirety of what Google offers them from the perspective of a seamless, signal-driven moble world of contextual services.

A short video from Google's Android team underscores how the seamless home-to-car-to-walkabout mode of today's consumers demands content and services to be aware of just what we're doing in a given moment - and to deliver us just what we want when we want it. This is very important to companies trying to reach these mobile markets, which still use Web pages to reach their audiences but which also have to grab people when they're most likely to research products or make a purchase. The Web is no longer just a scrollable catalog - it's a cross-platform, signal-driven probing tool to understand people and their needs in real-time, people who want to reduce wasteful interactions and to maximize interactions that matter most in the moment and in the context of a moment.

While much media production is still focused on flagging down our attention with mass-audience appeal, The Signal Economy driven off of platforms like those debuted at Google I/O this year pushes media in the exact opposite direction - towards minimizing interactions with distractions so that we can focus with what services like Google know through signal-gathering are important to us in the moment in the exact place that we need them - maybe even two places at once. Marketing conversations in this environment are much less about creating mindless social media streams and much more about "what kind of topping on your pizza?" popping from your smart watch as you're checking the traffic for the ride home. The "get to your gut" advertising approach in this environment gives way to sensors actually monitoring what's happening in our gut. More adjustments are head for publishers as more marketing spending moves into this signal-rich environment. Good luck, folks, it's going to be an interesting year ahead in media and technology! If we can help you sort out your strategies in The Signal Economy, do let us know.