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For Google, what a difference a year makes

For Google, what a difference a year makes

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At Google I/O this time last year, Eric Schmidt was CEO of Google, nobody from the company had ever uttered the word "tablet" in public, and the fancy new Google Wave service was just going public. Since then, Larry Page has taken the top spot from Eric, Google has launched an entire tablet OS with gobs of on-the-market or at least incoming hardware, and Google Wave has launched, failed, been shut down, and been relaunched by Apache. We've certainly come a long way!

This week Google made great use of the word "momentum," and I think it's a great way to describe the company's efforts. Of course, not all of their ideas are good ones, but the good ones don't just succeed, they seem to explode. Google naturally spent most of its time this week focused on its two most explosive products: Android and Chrome.

Last year we got the first glimpse of Android 2.2 Froyo, which proved to be a landmark version of the OS (a landmark which most handsets sadly haven't progressed past). One of its marquee features was WiFi hotspot functionality, which these days we hardly know how we lived without, but Froyo's greatest contribution was probably the spit and polish and speed that made the OS truly palatable to a mass market. Those days Google was selling a certainly impressive 100,000 Android handsets a day, and had 50,000 apps in the Android market, but now an obscene 400,000 Android devices are activated every day, and there are 200,000 apps to choose from.

Now we're looking forward to Ice Cream Sandwich, which will merge Google's tablet Honeycomb efforts with its Gingerbread phone OS and add a bunch more features as well. Google's even working on its fragmentation problem, which means even fancy new Ice Cream Sandwich phones won't have to stay Ice Cream Sandwich phones forever. Of course, the exact details remain to be ironed out: Google has manufacturers and carriers committing to 18 months of updates, but nobody seems to know what that means. Hopefully it means that phones will be updated to the most recent version of the OS that was launched before their 18 months runs out, instead of just waiting 18 months for a single update (which seems to be the more popular tactic).

Chrome was hardly struggling last year, with 70 million installs, but Google had yet to ship stable versions for Mac or Linux, and there was clearly plenty of market share to be gained: this year there are 160 million installs of the hyper modern browser, and there's little sign of stopping. JavaScript is "no longer a bottleneck," and now we're looking forward to technology like WebGL to deliver the next generation of in-browser experiences.

Now, Google isn't just a rapidly growing company or a on-the-fast-track-to-dominance company, but it's also changing in some truly meaningful ways. Google still treats new markets in its typical Google way (beta everything), but it's treating a lot of new markets. In a year the company has entered the living room with Google TV, launched a tablet OS in Honeycomb, shipped beta hardware of Chrome OS to thousands of participants (for free!), and now has announced entries into the home automation (Android @ Home), hardware accessory (Android Open Accessory), music storage (Music Beta), and movie rental markets.

Google is turning into a consumer electronics company before our eyes, and it's fascinating to watch. And on a lighter note, it's not just Google's product portfolio that's changing. The opening keynote was vastly improved over last year's, and Google appears to have gone from a company filled with scattered nerds who are a little terrified of being on stage, to a company filled with scattered nerds who are a little terrified of being on stage but are extremely well rehearsed and totally on message. In fact, I can't think of a better keynote I've seen from any company other than Apple in the past five years. Google's day two keynote wasn't as impressive, but how seriously excited can you get about WebGL and JavaScript performance?

So, what hasn't changed?

Google still hasn't figured out Google TV. The fact that they're prepping Android 3.1 for existing and new hardware is promising, and the addition of the Android Market (and cross platform compatibility for apps) is even a better sign. What isn't promising is the fact that Google didn't actually show any of this new stuff up and running. We haven't seen a bit of evidence that Google can actually deliver in the living room, and they have a lot left to prove.

Everything is in beta. Now, there's part of us that loves Google's beta nature. They're not afraid to try stuff, and they're not afraid to let us play around with a product while it's still in the polishing stages (Gmail and Chrome are some of our favorite examples). Unfortunately, when you're creating products that people actually spend money on, beta isn't so hot. Google TV is the most egregious example of this, but we're afraid Chrome OS might be the next. Despite tons of testing, the Chrome OS we have now is very little beyond the Chrome OS we originally heard of in 2009. One of the absolute key features that would make an OS like this possible is offline Gmail and Google Docs, but Google has yet to ship either. We're supposed to see them this summer, around when the Chromebooks themselves start shipping, but that sounds like a "beta" if there ever was one.

They still suck at social. We've heard that Google is trying to avoid another Buzz-style catastrophe, and therefore is keeping its social efforts close to the chest -- it wants to make sure everything is just right before it leaps upon an unsuspecting public with another overbearing and privacy-invading service. That's fine, but in the meantime they're leaving a ton of potential functionality on the table. This week's most egregious example was Google Music Beta. Music has become a social experience, but Google instead is launching a personal storage locker service that would feel at home in 2009 or even 1999.

Anyway, that's enough editorializing, here are the hot links:




<!-- p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 13.0px Helvetica; color: #013a8a} span.s1 {color: #000000} span.s2 {text-decoration: underline} -->Thanks to for the lens rental.