Liz Gannes

Recent Posts by Liz Gannes

Google I/O 2012: A Helping of Gadgets With a Side of Circus Act

If you were trying to learn about Google’s priorities this week at its annual I/O developer conference, you’d be forgiven for being confused. There was no uniting vision, little focus on developer products, less than two keynotes worth of new content and many massive areas of the company never even got a mention.

Google Glass-wearing wingsuit flyers talk to Sergey Brin (small) before they jump out of a plane above Google I/O.

To be fair, even in its old age, Google is still a very look-at-me company. Tickets to I/O sell out in minutes, everyone swoons over the free gadgets and every word uttered onstage is written up by a swarm of publications. The production values are high, and the snacks are tasty.

This year, in its best moments, I/O was also an entertaining circus sideshow — such as when co-founder Sergey Brin rigged a flying human relay race, broadcast live from every angle, to demonstrate Google Glass. Twice.

That said, Thursday’s Day 2 Google Chrome keynote session basically amounted to some mission statements, a few new stats and some expected feature launches. The sole exception was the Google Compute Engine debut.

Then, instead of fresh content on key areas like Google Maps, Google Wallet or Google TV, we got a replay of Brin’s fabulous flying filmers — this time with new camera angles and narration.

The Android keynote on Day 1 had much more content, although even Google is admitting that the new Jelly Bean is not a major software release. It’s officially just version 4.1.

If there were two main takeaways from the event, it’s that Google is increasingly a hardware company, and that its hit list of competitors now includes everyone in tech — Amazon (both Kindle and AWS), Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, Sonos and more.

On the hardware front, Google created the Nexus 7 tablet, bringing in partner Asus only four months before launch. It’s leaning in even further with the Android Q streaming device, which will be made at a factory in the U.S. And it’s rapidly internally prototyping the Project Glass wearable computers (whose manufacturing is TBD).

This is not to say Google is yet a true, seasoned hardware player. The company is in the earliest stages of all these hardware projects. While promising, the Nexus 7 tablet is a first-generation device playing catch-up on apps and content. Android Q is very pretty, but is the ability to fight over a communal playlist via Android phone really worth $300? And Glass is more than a year away.

But perhaps the most striking part of I/O was realizing that the target audience for these announcements was really not developers.

The enigmatic new Android Q device gets synced to an Android phone.

Developers got lip service in the keynotes. The Q is going to be “hackable,” Google said briefly. The cool new Android Google Now personalized shortcut feature is limited to only Google content, with no options yet for outside developers to add their own cards.

And while developers got more attention in topic-specific breakout sections — many of which I did not attend — those topics were still limited in their own way. One developer pointed out to me that he had come to hear about building on top of Google Apps, and there was not a single developer session devoted to the topic.

It seemed clear that one group Google was courting was the media — and the many more consumers they reach. The media presence at I/O was bigger than ever, with more than 400 reporters at the event, and press rooms upon press rooms stretching down one hallway.

That was reflected in the presentations, as well. As an example, consider Google+, Google’s big social product. The two Google+ announcements at I/O were: 1) tablet apps, and 2) an event-planning and capture tool.

So: Two incremental new features. No long-awaited Google+ API aimed at developers.

But then, in a personal Google+ post by a product manager on Wednesday, came a significant announcement to introduce the first automatic importing of outside content into Google+.

And then on Thursday, via a developer blog post, the service announced its first platform features for mobile developers.

Isn’t that the sort of stuff you’d announce onstage at a developers conference?

Of course. But, then again, it’s not as captivating as wingsuits and rappelling down buildings.

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