Google I/O: Looking At The Bigger Picture (Google 2.0)
At a micro-level it would appear Google didn't announce much from the consumer side of things. No new hardware was announced besides the Samsung Galaxy S4 running stock Android. There was no Android 4.3 update, no mention of Google Glass (until the Q&A), the rumored high-resolution Nexus 7 tablet wasn't announced, nor was there a peep about the Nexus 4 or rumored Motorola X phone.
But if you zoom out a bit, the dozens of little pieces Google mentioned at I/O forms a more complete picture. The new API's, developer tools, updated maps, improved search, and Google+ redesign all come together to form a more unified, polished and focused Google than ever before. Some may even go as far to say we've entered into a Google 2.0 era.
Over the past year or so Google has systematically improved the design of all of it's most popular software on the desktop and on their mobile apps. Over the years Google software didn't necessarily have a particular style or design language. In fact they were often criticized for having "ugly" or at best, uninspired UI. Today, Google is creating some of the best designed software on the planet primarily using cards with intuitive navigation to display information. An early version of cards first made their debut in Google's Knowledge Graph in Google Search in May, 2012. It displayed well organized, pertinent information and images about unique people, places and things on the right side of a Google Search query.
A more refined version of cards showed up in the announcement of Google Now. Each Card displayed certain information that is contextually important to the user. Things like weather, traffic or team scores. The cards were easily disposed of with a quick swipe to the left or right. The playful, yet fast animations, modern minimalism, and overall usefulness of the software made it an instant hit and gave Apple users something to be a little jealous about. Since then they've continued to push the card metaphor throughout most of their mobile apps on Android and iOS, Google Play, Google Music, Google Glass, and now Google+. It's a clean yet not completely flat design that looks both inviting and digitally native.
This new focus on design has now trickled it's way into an updated Google Maps and Google Plus. The new Maps does make use the card metaphor in minor ways and also takes inspiration by keeping menus out of the way, and making animations fluid and fast. Google Plus however uses cards full stop and the results are magnificent. Instead of the single timeline with lots of empty white space, Google Plus now automatically adjust to your browsers width and provides up to three rows of content. Occasionally the rows are broken up by larger cards that contain popular post, usually photos.
This uniformity of design and functionality across platforms and computing devices is not only pleasurable to use but brings a sort of feng shui quality to Google's software and services.
"The end of search as we know it"
It's hard to love technology and science and not be excited about where Google is heading in regards to search, artificial intelligence, and the merging of the two. During I/O, engineer Amit Singhal talked about how as a child he watched Star Trek and was amazed that they were able to talk to computers and it talked back. He spoke about dreaming of one day building a computer that humans can talk to and now he is.
He then spoke about Google and their desire to build a search engine that can do three things: Answer. Converse. Anticipate.
They are expanding the functionality of Knowledge Graph (now over 570 Million entities graphed), adding statistics and graphs that can enhance and possibly anticipate and answer your next question relating to the initial search. Search will also began to integrate your personal information that Google has access to (Gmail, Calendar, docs, etc) in order to better serve you. For example, having access to this information could help when you have questions regarding your travel plans, restaurant reservations, photos or packages arriving. All of this makes it easier for Google to provide more accurate and personalized answers when you have enter a question into Google Search.
Google already has fast and accurate voice search capabilities on mobile but the desktop voice search isn't nearly as useful. At I/O they announced an upcoming feature for Chrome that will bring conversational search to the desktop. When you ask a question it will audibly give you the answer. Not only that but it can contextualize questions based on the question you asked previously, something Apple's Siri currently does. If you ask, "How far is it from here?" it understands that "here" means where you are currently located. Another feature coming soon to Chrome is called 'hot wording' that allows you to use Google Search just by saying the phrase, "Ok, Google", then stating your query. All of this is done without pressing a single button. Hal 9000 isn't too far off from here.
Google Now fits nicely into their anticipation goals. They announced additional features and cards like reminders, cards for public transportation, books, video games, TV shows and music. Together these features make for an extremely powerful experience. The dream of naturally speaking to computers is finally becoming a reality. Interacting with computers has evolved over the past 50 years to better reflect how humans naturally interact with other humans. We've gone from punch cards, to programming, to DOS prompts, to GUI and now voice. Being able to speak to computers removes that final barrier that allows anyone from any background to interact with computers and instantly get information.
Vic Gundotra mentioned that there are now 900,000 Android activations in the world. He then showed a map that was colored coded to show which countries has less than 10% Android adoption. Three-quarters of the of world were colored. He mentioned how one of their goals is to get as many people using Android as possible, allowing people from all over the world to have access to a computing device for a low cost.
Better development tools, app translation tools, and the encouragement of improved tablet apps all strengthens a lot of the weakest points that are left in Android.
Google has made a concerted effort to make Chrome more powerful not only on the desktop but on mobile as well. Using WebGL allows for really impressive 3D graphics to be ran within the browser that you would expect from a gaming machine running native code. This kind of power makes it more realistic for Chrome OS to eventually become a viable option for regular people to use as a full time computer. Web apps will continue to become more powerful and useful. Google didn't mention anything at I/O about their recent announcement to fork Webkit into their own new standard that's rumored to be even more powerful.
Bringing more powerful search features and certain aspects of Google Now to Chrome while enhancing mobile Chrome's capabilities brings more parity between Chrome and Android. This will make it easier for developers to design products that work seamlessly between the desktop, tablets and mobile phones.
The Google of the past 10 years or so began as a text based search engine that used keywords to try to guess what you were looking for. They then started creating different products and services that expanded far outside of search that sometimes fit inside their business model and other times not. Engineers inside of Google where given free reign to create all of type of the things. Some of those made it to Google Labs, where curious users could play with them and some eventually graduated into products. The closing of Google Labs in July of 2011 could be seen as turning point for the company. The start of a more focused company with a larger goal in mind.
Google 2.0 is the coalescence of all of those products that survived, coming together to form a sort of neural network. Each piece sending signals to each other to create a richer picture about the user and making each individual piece of the network more powerful. The creation of Google Plus in 2011 (shortly before labs closed) marked the beginning of the larger gathering of data or signals by Google. While some considered it simply a play for social media and competition for Facebook, Google Plus acts as the backbone for the entire family of Google products. Collecting and sending signals about users and the web as a whole. The bar on the top of every Google website unifies the Google ecosystem encouraging users to stay (to create more signals and possibly see more ads)
Google is still in the process of moving all of the pieces into place but progress is being made. Google I/O showed they are evolving from turning keywords into a list of answers into a contextual answer machine. Where you literally ask Google a question and it verbally tells you an answer and displays a multitude of supportive information on screen to support that answer. Every new piece that Google attaches to the "body" makes every other piece stronger and more capable. The better it knows it's users the more helpful it becomes to it's users, which in turn allows for more useful (and valuable) advertising.