Google Me Sideways

Work, kids, the increasingly warm weather and ensuing allergies have conspired to keep me away from a (regular) keyboard at home for nearly a week now, so I’ve been peering at all the fallout from Google’s developer event through a combination of runny eyes and mobile browsers (not all of them based on WebKit, if you must know), musing about the “A vs B” hype making the rounds.

My take on things is threefold:

1. The online vs. brick-and-mortar paradigm, rebooted

Google is leveraging Apple’s visibility in the tech circle to show off their new stuff by direct comparison, which is a good short-term marketing strategy to increase notoriety but which seemed both somewhat forced (in terms of delivery of the presentations I saw) and actually not necessary at all, because Apple and Google have completely different business models.

Apple sells hardware and content (regardless of iAds, they are essentially a consumer electronics company with a content business on the side), and Google sells ads and services. Period.

What Google is doing, in the long run, is redefining the concept of distribution channels by:

  1. Making Android and Chrome as popular as possible, since mobile will get more eyeballs than anything else over the coming decade
  2. Fanning out and leveraging that to make their services available on other screens, like the TV.

But if they are not following up with actual product manufactured by themselves, they’re not really competing with Apple on the same terms – and I’m not alone in saying that.

Overall, this is both good and bad, because although the opportunity for building those new distribution channels will create jobs on both the tech and business sides, those will surely be limited1 to the US and Google will likely not be able to ensure the uniformity of the end user experience – and depending on licensing terms for stuff like Google TV, they will likely only derive indirect revenue.

Speaking of that, nine or ten years back I went to Paris to visit a company called NetGem, who at the time had the revolutionary idea to build a set-top-box with a built-in dial-up modem (hey, it was the 90’s), a browser and an IR remote and keyboard combo. We came back with two conclusions:

  1. The hardware was too expensive for the user experience it provided (something that is not likely to be the case with Google TV boxes until their partners start “adding value”)
  2. It was hard to believe people would surf the web on their TV, given that the ergonomics of tapping away at a cramped keyboard on your lap and squinting at text on a TV aren’t perfect (since the human body plan hasn’t changed in a decade, I suspect this is still true, and have confirmed it myself with modern tech by trying to use a mini hooked up to an HDTV – at 720p, 13pt text on a 42” screen is barely legible sitting a little over 2 meters away).

Plus someone else actually has to go and integrate stuff to bring to market, and the platforms have to become popular enough. So this is an Android-like long-term play with a sharp kick-off, a long-term vision and a lot of ground to cover in between.

2. The new media curse

This is 2010. In two weeks’ time, the amount of people still paying attention to this week’s event will have gone down exponentially, and the tech web sites will shift to either Apple’s comeback, Microsoft’s struggle to catch up or another Facebook privacy scandal – with headlines using these very words, regardless of whether it’s actually a comeback, a struggle or a scandal.

I am, as always, rather annoyed at the way this new online “press” works, with articles split across ten pages at a ratio of three banner ads per cogent paragraph, lacking in-depth analysis and sometimes even proper grammar, and although I understand the economics behind the current situation, I think that the way most news sites merely channeled and magnified Google’s tone will eventually prove detrimental, because it’s all about managing expectations these days.

This is another aspect where I think Apple and Google are fundamentally different without being necessarily at odds – Apple knows how to do both PR and brand management in a massively successful (and very low-key) way, whereas Google seems to be struggling to find an even tone – it’s not that they’re not good at doing presentations or PR, it’s just that they’re not brilliant at not overdoing it – that is why Apple generally announces products the day before they’re launched (or not at all) instead of pre-announcing stuff that won’t be available in more than a few months (or not at all).

Google’s just trying too hard, and even considering it was a developer-focused event, any PR guy or gal will tell you that if you’re going to do direct comparisons, you’d better have a very good follow-up to your opening moves.

3. Platform guerilla wars

A lot of folk are comparing Google to Microsoft in rather witty and amusing ways. My favorite so far is Mike Lee’s take, via Marco Arment (warning: original URL might be considered literally NSFW):

Microsoft – in a nutshell – is a company that had one successful product that we are all beholden to – that then used that capital to buy other people’s products and ruin them. They are not bad people, but they do stab their friends in the back. Also, they are a bunch of nerds, which is probably why they have never managed to produce a decent interface.

Google – in a nutshell – is a company that had one successful product that we are all beholden to – that then used that capital to buy other people’s products and ruin them. They are not bad people, but they do stab their friends in the back. Also, they are a bunch of nerds, which is probably why they have never managed to produce a decent interface.

Apple is a company that produces amazing, human-usable products. I love them for the same reason I love any such company, and I forgive them their eccentricities because their products are so amazing. They make decisions that I’m told are bad for me, yet I don’t see that reflected in their products as I use them.

It’s not the way I see it (for I watched all of them build their presence and market share throughout different eras of computing), but it’s a comparison that will resonate with a lot of people.

I have a simpler take on things.

The truth is that I am absolutely, utterly fed up with platform comparisons on either the (traditional) computing and mobile domains, and wish that the industry had out-grown them by now and we could just get on with it and deliver stuff that people want rather than fighting over the basics all over again every few years.

Also, the “store” mania (be it app or music) is, much to my personal annoyance, still rampaging through the industry, with much rhetoric and hand waving but little care for the creation of developer ecosystems beyond tossing out half-baked SDKs and calling the constant refreshes and recurring learning curves the rate of innovation without much caring for continuity.

Despite diligently maintaining my iPhone and Android pages, I don’t think either of them are the answer. I don’t even think there will ever be a right answer for everybody, and, quite honestly, these days I don’t really care what my phone, computer or TV are running, as long as they allow me to do what I want on each2 with the least amount of hassle3.

But if there is hassle, I’ll switch to the vendor which delivers less of it as an end user, not as a developer or integrator. And that’s what developers and integrators ought to consider, regardless of how cool the tech is.

1 It never ceases to amaze me how little effort most US-based multinationals make to leverage local talent, especially in an age where people can literally work from anywhere. This has been bothering me of late to some extent, because it seems like such a wasted opportunity in terms of creating value.

2 And I still think I did the right thing when I bought a “dumb” TV set last year that only has a USB port and no networking of its own whatsoever – but then again, here in Portugal we have had IPTV and decent set-top-boxes for a good while – most of them running Mediaroom in one form or another.

3 And as far as the industry goes, I would hardly call it successful at removing hassles when people can’t even agree on a single format for video, but that’s just my take on things…

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