Don’t Doubt Google’s People Skills

Jul 2, 2012
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Google IO opened with a bang last week, spilling Jelly Beans, cheap tablets, augmented reality and more, but for all the search giant knows we're looking for, is it still out of touch? After the buzz of Google Glass and its base jumping entrance - thoroughly milked the following day by Sergey "Iron Man" Brin - attendees have been adding up what was demonstrated and questioning Google's understanding of exactly how people use technology. Geeks getting carried away with "what can we do" rather than "why would we do it" is the common refrain, but make no mistake, everything Google showed us is rooted in solid business strategy.

Gizmodo has led the charge in questioning Google's social skills, wondering out loud whether Googlers are in fact "still building for robots" and demonstrate "a gaping disconnect between the way data geeks and the rest of us see the world." I'll admit, watching the live stream of the IO opening keynote, I caught myself wondering exactly how much of what was being shown I'd ever actually use myself.

There were, by general consensus, three questionable areas: Google+ Events, the Nexus Q, and Google Glass.

Events are, certainly, only useful to you if your social network is also on Google+. The platform's popularity among geeks and early-adopters of a certain inclination - usually orbiting around disliking Facebook and showing various degrees of Twitter apathy - has meant it's a good place to make new friends (as long as you like, well, geeks and early-adopters of a certain inclination) but not generally a place to find existing ones.

That's something Google needs to address, and adding Events is a relatively easy, low-cost way of doing. Think about it: if you get an email notification saying that someone you know has invited you to a party, and you need to sign into Google+ in order to read and respond to it, you're probably more likely to do so than if you simply see "+You" at the top of the Google homepage. It's evidence of an existing relationship: you won't just be wandering into a room full of strangers.

On top of that, you have the contentious - and awfully named - Party Mode, something that perhaps most won't use but which might find a little favor among the geekier users. Again, the key part is that you don't have to use Party Mode in order to get value out of Google+ Events; Google just added it in so that, if you want, you can better document your gathering in the same place you organized it beforehand.

Then there's the Nexus Q. Google's launch demonstration for the Android-based streaming orb was an awkward low-point of the keynote, spending too long on the obvious - okay, it gives you a shared playlist on multiple devices, we get it - and not enough time putting it into context with Google's future plans and other platforms like Google TV. Again, though, it's a first step in a process, that process being the journey of a perfectly standard home streamer and Sonos alternative.

On that level, there are some advantages. Yes, you might not necessarily sit around with friends each tapping at your Nexus 7 to put together the very best playlist ever created, but if it's a lot better set up to handle impromptu control than, say, Sonos is. Communal control with Sonos is a difficult one: do you ask everyone to download the Sonos controller app, then pair them with your network, or do you leave your iPad or iPhone unlocked (complete with access to your email, bookmarks, documents, etc…) so that they can dip into your music collection? Or, do you have a special device solely for party controller use?

[aquote]The Nexus Q is Google's gateway to your TV screen[/aquote]

In the longer term, though, Google's motivation is the Nexus Q as a gateway to your TV screen. That's what, if you recall, Google TV was meant to be - a way to expand Google's advertising visibility from the desktop browser, smartphones and tablets, to the big-screen in your lounge - but stumbles and hiccups scuppered those plans. One of the most common complaints of first-gen Google TV was simply how complex it was; in contrast, the Nexus Q looks stunning, and concentrates on doing (at the moment) just a little. But, as a headless Android phone, there's huge potential for what it could be next - console, video streamer for Netflix and Hulu, video conferencing system - after Google has got its collective hands on your HDMI input.

Of the three, though, it's Google Glass that's the hardest sell to the regular user. That's not because it's difficult to envisage uses for, but because of the price. Still, it's not for the end-user yet: Google has given itself eighteen months or more to reach that audience, and who knows what battery, processor, wireless and design advantages we'll have by then?

Aspects developed on Glass will undoubtedly show up in Android on phones, and again, the mass market benefits. There are certainly elements of persistent connection and mediated reality that apply even in devices without wearable displays. If anything, Glass is the clearest demonstration of Google's two-tier structure: one level for regular people, and another for the geeks and tinkerers. The regular crowd eventually benefit from what the geeks come up with, as it filters down, has its rough edges polished away, and becomes refined for the mass-market.

"Google is a monolithic company, sure, but it's filled with geniuses who want to make your life easier through technology" is how Gizmodo sees the IO announcements: having intentions that are fundamentally altruistic but misguided. In reality, everything Google showed has its roots in business and platform extension.

Google isn't Apple, it doesn't push a one-size-fits-all agenda. That's not necessarily a bad approach, mind; Apple's software is consistent and approachable, doesn't suffer the same fragmentation issues as, say, Android does, and means that iOS devices generally do what's promised on the tin. What Google knows is its audience or, more accurately, audiences, and so everything at IO was stacked in different levels to suit those varying needs. Some people don't want to be limited by the ingredients on the side, they want to mix up their own meal, and IO is all about fueling that. Sometimes it takes a little more time to think through the consequences - and sometimes Google does a shoddy job of helping explain them - but there's most definitely a market out there for them.


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