Liz Gannes

Recent Posts by Liz Gannes

Shoot the Moon: How Google Turned a Hodgepodge of Upgrades Into a Show of Strength

Imagine this: A big conference where a closely watched tech company launched barely anything new or unexpected.

Image copyright Vlue

And, after confining the audience to their seats for three hours of a hodgepodge of announcements, the CEO of the company came out and bemoaned the industry horse-race mentality (which could be read as hypocritical for many reasons).

Still, the company’s stock spiked up and beyond an all-time high, and everybody raved about how great it all was.

It doesn’t make any sense, of course, unless perhaps you were talking about one of the patented reality distortion field performances of the late Steve Jobs of Apple.

But somehow that’s how it worked for Google this past week at its 2013 I/O developers conference, where nothing big or particularly ambitious was unveiled. Unlike previous editions of the conference that had major reveals, every announcement on Wednesday — dozens and dozens of them — got roughly equal billing and were presented in much the same manner. An exec set up the larger initiative, a product manager did a demo, followed by a feel-good video that showed its potential.

Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

While there were better tools for app developers, a neat-looking new design for Google Maps, features to automatically sort and edit photos, a way to search by voice from your computer the same way you already can from your phone, a personalized music service, a program to distribute educational tablet apps to students, a different set of software for an existing Samsung smartphone and four more languages for Google’s Knowledge Graph, it was still largely incremental.

Why there was no new rev of Android, just when Apple’s Jonny Ive is busy with a radical overhaul of iOS? Where were the new Nexus devices as the smartphone market gets more competitive than ever? What happened to the promise of Android @home and Google TV? If Apple had done this kind of incremental WWDC, they’d be slammed.

Instead, Google I/O got away without launching any significant revisions — not even a .1 release! — or devices for either its Android or Chrome platforms. It didn’t even spend keynote time on its hot topic “moonshot” projects.

Come to think of it, Google CEO Larry Page’s closing speech about the amazing potential of technology to change people’s lives might have been more fitting at the end of three hours about Google Glass and the self-driving cars. Like last year, when his co-founder Sergey Brin organized his Glass skydiving stunt from an overhead blimp down to the stage, streamed via Google Hangout.

But Wednesday wasn’t about the dream-big stuff of tomorrow, it was about today being a better version of yesterday.

In many ways, Google was filling in a structure it had already built. The company brought many products from one device or platform to another. It applied its artificial intelligence smarts for everything from beautifying photos of faces to anticipating potential searches in context. It added analytics to do useful things like help Android app developers see how effective their Google advertising spending is on driving installs. It personalized, personalized and then personalized.

That’s not to say the many products Google introduced at I/O were not impressive when taken as a whole. Rather, the incremental improvements taken together are building out its massive vision. Maybe we’re getting cynical because today’s reality is too close to science fiction to remember when it seemed crazy. Or maybe Google just hypnotized us all.

Even some Googlers conceded this. In a conversation with Johanna Wright, an eight-year veteran of Google who is now VP of search and assist for Android, she made a similar observation about the keynote.

“Having been at Google so long, I feel like there might be no single leap, no single announcement, but the way it’s coming together feels like a huge leap,” Wright said. “There’s a deep understanding underlying it.”

That Google could pull this off so successfully is interesting, especially when you think about one of its main competitors like Apple, where the news cycle is all about secrets and supplier signals and hope and fickle investors and disappointment and scrutiny.

That’s perhaps because Google is not as caught up in that launch-dependent hardware wowing, but rather has picked a line of products that it commits to and continually improves upon and is then held to a different standard.

That’s one explanation, at least.

Whatever the reason, it worked. In after-hours trading, Google stock was at $918.70 after the big show. In its entire history, it had never crossed $900 before that morning.


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— Gitesh Pandya of comments on the dreadful opening weekend box office numbers for “The Fifth Estate.”