Feeding the beast: An Apple customer's look at Google I/O 2015

While Apple's WWDC is of little interest to hard-core Android customers, Google I/O can and often is of significant interest to Apple customers. It's where Google shows off its big new initiatives and previews updates for its existing services. Some years, those are blips on the radar, here for a moment, gone the next. Other years their scope and implications shake the world. This year, for me, fell somewhere in the middle. Google was restrained, relatively speaking, and focused. Yet as much as they acknowledged the need to shore up what came before, the company's focus is clearly on what's coming next. And that's worth a deeper discussion.

North Stars

Both Apple and Google have been stating their corporate goals with increasing frequency, including during their respective keynotes. Both are worth comparing and contrasting.

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Apple's is to make great products. Google's is to organize the world's data.

Expanded, that means Apple needs to enter categories where the company believes it can make a substantial contribution through really great products it can sell to a select segment of the market.

Google needs to convince everyone on earth to hand over all of their data so Google can organize it and make it accessible to everyone else on earth.

Apple funds its strategy by selling those great products at substantial margins. Google by selling advertising against, and intelligence obtained from, the data.

Everything Apple says and does on stage is designed to get you to give them money for a product, and to enjoy it so much you want to keep giving them more money for subsequent products.

Everything Google says and does on stage is to get you to give them more data, and to enjoy it so much you want to keep giving them more data.

That's critical to keep in mind when you watch presentations from either.

Android M

Like last year, Google previewed the next version of the company's mobile operating system, using only the first letter of what will eventually be its dessert-inspired product name. So, Android M.

Of the six tent-poles revealed ons stage, four brought Android much closer in philosophy and functionality to iOS. Permissions are becoming more human. Android Pay will offer platform-level mobile payments. Fingerprint scanning will become core to the system. Battery life is getting more attention and more intelligence.

While Google keeps heralding the company's "different together" philosophy, and the advantages of its non-integrated model — just like Microsoft did at the height of its PC dominance — reality is increasingly heralding something else.

From Material Design to Google Play Services to app review to moving functionality into the platform, Google realizes that control matters. It serves both the company's interest and consumers. It's absolutely good for everybody. It'll just be interesting to see when Google starts matching its verbiage to its actions. While people famously reference Apple's reality distortion field, Google's has been far, far more effective for the last half-decade.

The other two tentpoles were app links and Chrome tabs. I like them both. Letting an app securely register ownership of a link, so it opens in the app rather than the browser, is something I'd love to see on iOS. Apple already does web-to-app handoff and has had smart data detectors for years, so app linking seems like a logical step.

The idea of a Safari view controller for iOS has been brought up before and remains compelling. Form and password filling can already be handled by extensibility but having everything from bookmarks to logged in status ubiquitous would be a huge win.

Even better, if and when Apple brings features like these to iOS, they'll be available on hundreds of millions of devices, going back generations, all at once, everywhere. By contrast it'll likely take years for Android M to propagate to a majority of handsets.

Google is working to improve that, and they should be, but it remains a significant challenge for Google and a competitive advantage for Apple.

Android Wear

Google's vendor partners managed to push out seven watches in the last year, which have likely, collectively, sold over a million units by now, and accumulated over 4000 apps. (Google didn't specify if clock faces were counted as apps; I'll assume not).

4000 is the same number Apple's Jeff Williams announced as available for the Apple Watch the day before. Apple hasn't announced sales numbers for the Apple Watch, but it's no doubt in double digit millions already and growing.

Given the differences in business and app models, it's not a fair comparison, but it's an important one.

Though the features gone over on stage weren't brand spanking new, they're still worth mentioning: always on apps, wrist gestures, draw emoji, and more resources for apps.

Jeff Williams likewise reiterated native apps would be coming to the Apple Watch, would be previewed at WWDC, and would include access to sensors and the Digital Crown.

Drawing emoji and wrist gestures seem like they might be convenient but also annoying. I'll have to try the implementation. I'm not desperate for them, though. Always on apps I really want in theory but the way they work on Android Wear right now doesn't look great.

Apps, Maps, and Photos

Google stressed the size and reach of the Android platform several times as a way to entice developers. It fell flat for me. Platform size is meaningless unless you give developers a way to pay for food and shelter. Every customer has a cost, and the platform has to offer value that exceeds that cost. That's why iOS, despite the difference in install base, continues to attract insanely disproportionate developer attention.

The Google Maps stuff looked great, though. They're going offline. You'll be able to search and even get turn-by-turn navigation in areas with a spotty or non-existent data connection. Other services have done this by requiring gigabyte-sized downloads. I'm not sure what Google will be doing, by I'm hoping it's way smarter than that.

Google Photos also looks great, and in many ways similar to Apple's new Photos and iCloud Photo Library. It's available for iOS as well as Android, so it's another option for iPhone and iPad owners to consider. It's also got an unlimited "free-as-in-Google" storage and backup tier. (If you want to keep the original quality, however, you'll have to pay.)

Google Now and On Tap

Google Now continues to fascinate me. There's nothing I'd love more than Tony Stark's JARVIS in my life — a virtual persona assistant to rival a real one. Yet, at the same time, nothing would terrify me more. Privacy, like security, is at perpetual war with convenience. Surrendering personal data to get services isn't inherently good or bad, but we should carefully consider each and every choice we make along that path.

I currently don't use Google Now because it feels too "expensive" to me. The amount of data it wants me to give in exchange for more convenient notifications is too high. Each time Google adds a new feature, including the new, more contextually relevant "On Tap" feature they showed off on stage, I'm forced to re-evaluate that.

I joke about how, when Google uses terms like "machine learning" and "neural networks", and when I see those spider dog bots from Boston Dynamics, Terminator and the Matrix come instantly to mind. But in truth, the humans concern me just as much.

Apple, who for years didn't want to do operations on customer data in the cloud, is working on a Google Now-like service of its own. I have a tendency to trust Apple more only because its business model doesn't involve brokering my data. But that could change one day too. Data last a long, long time and humans are very, very good at mortgaging our long term interests for short term convenience.

The new Google Now and On Tap features look like amazing technology. I'm just terribly conflicted about using any of it.

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Google deserves a lot of credit for how inclusive the company's keynotes continue to be. There was a lot of other stuff announced as well, much of it aimed at bringing Internet access and mobile devices to emerging markets, virtual reality to schools, Android to the Internet of Things, and otherwise increasing the scope of Google market. (I wish they'd spent some time talking about first-party accessibility, though.)

The optimist in me sees this as Google trying to make the world a better place by giving back. Thanks to the revenue they accrue from showing ads, they can afford to create novel new infrastructures, enable low-cost technologies, and otherwise fund the future.

It's the Star Trek machine. It's Memory Alpha. And all these great services are the bits upon which it's built.

The pessimist in me sees this as Google creating ever more channels for data acquisition. By getting emerging markets and children onto the company's services in a way that looks altruistic. Instead of people getting angry when Google advertises to parents in an attempt to get their children's data, they put their services in schools and parents thank them for taking their children's data.

It's a beast of unprecedented, unimaginable size. And all this cool technology is the sedative we're given to feed it.

The realist in me sees both. Google is pushing out fantastic new features at a breakneck pace, but all of them are ones I need to go into with eyes wide open.

Google wants to organize the world's data. To do that, it needs the data. It needs us to provide it, and it needs us to want to provide it. Everything Google does is based on that single truth.

Updated with a section on Google Now and On Tap.