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Google I/O: Google to Beat Apple to New Gadgets

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Google I/O: Google to Beat Apple to New Gadgets

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Google I/O: Google to Beat Apple to New Gadgets

More than ever, the devices, software, and services we use to connect to media, play games, and communicate with people depend on two companies: Apple and Google.

The battle of the two giants will be on display, at least implicitly, at Google’s developer conference Wednesday and Thursday in San Francisco, which comes about three weeks after Apple’s own developer conference at the very same location. The razzle-dazzle we saw two years ago, when skydivers wearing Google Glass landed on top of the Moscone Center roof and bicycled into the conference ballroom, likely won’t be matched (nor was it last year). But the breadth of what Google will be showing the 6,000 developers expected to attend may make up for that.

In particular, Google is expected to show off its mobile Android software not just for the usual phones and tablets, but also smart watches, cars, televisions, and even thermostats made by Nest, the smart home products company Google bought earlier this year for $3 billion. It’s a range of devices that not only matches but in some cases goes beyond what Apple makes or even hints at.

For one, Google likely will provide more information about Android Wear, software to control wearable devices. A video Google just released shows people glancing at a smartwatch for all sorts of services, from a jellyfish warning to an airline boarding pass. Samsung is expected to introduce a new smart watch using the software, and LG and Motorola also may unveil their own watches.

Google itself is expected to unveil Google Fit, a new health service to collect and use data from fitness trackers. That’s yet another direct hit on Apple, which recently launched what sounds like a similar product for developer, HealthKit.

We’ll also get an update on Google’s Open Automotive Alliance, an initiative to bring Android to cars starting this year. The company seems likely to reveal more about Android TV, Google’s third attempt to insert its software and services into what remains the most compelling entertainment device and advertising channel in the world. Not least, we might hear more about Google’s plans for home automation through Nest.

Of course, Google seems certain to announce improvements to Android, though there’s less consensus among close Android watchers whether there will be a full-blown new version. While these updates are likely to be pretty technical, they may end up having the most impact because they most directly affect what developers can do on apps and devices.

On the hardware front, despite rumors about a new phone and a new tablet, those seem a little less likely, though Google can always surprise us. More certain is that we’ll hear some more about plans for an official Google Glass rollout. Much more waiting, and all that coverage–granted, often critical–of what is intended to be a flagship product years into the future could wither away.

The tech press tends to make it sound like consumers should hang on every word at developer conferences like this and Apple’s. The reality is that a lot of the products that get introduced here take awhile to get into the market. Google Glass, for instance, was unveiled a little before I/O two years ago but still won’t be widely available until later this year.

Still, Google is making an attempt this year to appeal to more than the male nerds who customarily attend and, by extension, to make software and services more broadly appealing in the future. For one, the company invited a lot of product designers, whom it will need to counter the perception reality that too many tech products aren’t simple or elegant enough for mere mortals–something Apple still understands better than anyone.

For another, Google made a point of getting more women into the conference. A spokesperson says there will be an estimated 20% this year compared with around 7% in previous I/Os, an increase that Google purposely engineered. That certainly doesn’t solve the diversity concerns that plague Google and most other tech companies, but it’s an acknowledgment that the status quo isn’t nearly good enough.

All of this seems aimed at catapulting Google into the forefront of not only the technology that powers our devices and services, but their look and feel as well. Indeed, that has been the key them of CEO Larry Page, who decreed when he took over three years ago that all of Google’s products should be more “beautiful.”

It would be easy to assume, as many have, that Google is carrying out Page’s dictum simply by following the Apple playbook. And while that’s no doubt the motivation for some of Google’s initiatives, Google’s multi-pronged moves are likely driven by broader concerns. The global proliferation of mobile devices, the increasing utility of cloud computing, and new machine learning technology that can make sense of the wealth of data we’re producing are combining to mandate a new approach to consumer tech products. This year’s I/O should reveal how far Google has come–and how far it has to go.


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