For a lot of people, the world of personal technology is like a spectator sport. We have our favorite groups and personalities, we compare market shares like they were league rankings, and we always enjoy the crescendo of hype surrounding a big set piece event. Google I/O is undoubtedly one of the marquee events on the tech calendar these days, solely on account of Google’s enormous reach and influence, but I’m here to turn the hype volume down. I/O 2017 won’t be a big splash of epic excitement, and we shouldn’t expect it to be. Google has grown to a size and position where presenting an unexciting public image would actually be in its favor.
Consider the most boring sports teams and players in recent times: the San Antonio Spurs haven’t missed the playoffs since Bill Clinton was president, Michael Schumacher and Roger Federer made their respective sports utterly predictable for a decade each, and the New England Patriots just keep collecting championships every couple of years. As good as each of them has been, their dominance has inevitably earned them detractors as well as fans.
In the tech world, the company most often accused of becoming boring has been Apple. It’s fair to say that iPhones have advanced only incrementally over the past couple of years, and the company’s design language has settled into an aluminum-clad comfort zone where new products rarely bring about radically new forms or shapes. And yet, iPhone sales keep breaking records and Apple user satisfaction ratings remain sky-high. I believe Google is entering a similar zone of consistent success through predictable iteration rather than fundamental reinvention.
Once upon a time, Google I/O needed extra fireworks and incentives to attract developers’ time, money, and attention to Google platforms. In 2010, Google gave away free HTC Evo 4G smartphones to I/O attendees, followed by Samsung Galaxy Tabs and Chromebooks in 2011, Google Nexuses in 2012, and Chromebook Pixels in 2013. As the loot escalated, so, too, did the gravitas of the announcements. The launch of commercial Chromebooks in 2011 was not only an entire new line of hardware, but an entirely new way of looking at hardware — it made the device beholden to the web, flipping the traditional relationship of device first, cloud second. It was followed closely by the extravagant unveiling of Google Glass in 2012. The latter event included skydiving, abseiling, and some acrobatic bike stunts, all orchestrated by Google co-founder Sergey Brin at his geekiest.
In 2016, however, there was no swag for visitors, and there wasn’t even a roof over the event for parachutists to land on. Google is fully conscious of its magnetism: the world is now mobile, Android dominates mobile, and so if you’re serious about your business, you’re making an Android app no matter what. So the sweeteners are gone, but there’s more to Google’s changes than just that. The whole decoupling of the billion-user Google businesses (like Gmail, YouTube, and Android) from the moon shots and experiments like Glass was in the service of presenting a more straightforward and financially accountable company.
To borrow an infamous phrase from last year, it takes courage to be boring. Nvidia is an instructive example in this category: the graphics card company spent the past three years talking about its deep learning "supercomputers" for self-driving cars and other incredibly nerdy things that had little to no resonance with regular consumers. But over the past few months Nvidia’s stock price has surged as it has secured lucrative contracts for the deployment of its machine learning hardware and a leading position in this next growth sector in tech. Google is another leading name in machine learning, and if it can resist the temptation to shove the incomplete technology in our faces before it’s ready — a folly Google might have been guilty of with its Daydream VR initiative, which is still unsupported by most Android phones — then its patience is likely to be richly rewarded.
Perhaps the most prosaic reason for Google to be boring is that much of the company’s work walks the fine line between helpful contextual awareness and outright privacy invasion. You don’t want an exciting company handling your personal data any more than you want a thrill-seeking accountant or an adrenaline junkie doctor. If Google’s injection of machine learning and artificial intelligence into its products goes completely unnoticed by users, I sense that the company would feel its mission has been accomplished. There’s just no reason now for Google to thump its chest or assert the technological leadership it enjoys: that’s more likely to raise alarms among regulators than improve Google’s business prospects.
The temptation will always be there to pull something out of the prototype labs and wow expectant crowds with it. That might even be advisable for companies in need of an energizing blast of fresh attention — but for someone as successful as Google has been, the quieter path seems to be the better one.