Watching Google I/O, the company's annual developer-centric keynote, is a bit like watching Wayne Brady's frenetic reboot of Let's Make a Deal. In case you haven't seen the TV show, here's the basic concept: people dress up in insane, colorful costumes. They get picked out of the audience and start screaming and crying. They're offered arbitrary choices or games of chance to narrow down their selection of a prize which they can't see.
"Which door?" asks Wayne, one arm around the hysterical woman in a chicken suit.
"Uh, door number two!"
"Are you sure?" Wayne always double checks.
"Yeah, why not!" she screams. Buckets of tears are getting all the fake feathers wet, and it's hard to tell if Wayne's sidehug is the loving embrace of a father or the stern guidance of a disciplinarian. Or both.
But is it worth the risk of losing your newfound Hot Tub and getting stuck with a gift certificate to Red Lobster?
Wayne asks the prize gods to reveal what's behind door number two. The Jeopardy / Wheel of Fortune / Price is Right narrator explains the merits of the Jet Ski / Vacation Package / Hot Tub / Patio Furniture door number two unveils. Then Wayne asks that terrible, unfair question: keep what you've got, or try a different door? And you just know there's a car behind one of those other two doors. But is it worth the risk of losing your newfound Hot Tub and getting stuck with a gift certificate to Red Lobster?
And that's how I feel watching Google I/O. It's a game of chance, and somebody is going to go home happy, grateful for the iterative changes to the phone version of Android, and someone else is going to go home heartbroken after Google totally fails on Android TV / Android Wear / Android for Chrome OS / Android Auto / Google Fit somewhere between 6 and 12 months from now.
History is littered with the carcasses of failed or abandoned Google projects. Google Wave, Google Buzz, Android@Home, Google Reader... shall I go on? And yet, the world is shaped by Google's relatively few successes, like Search, Android, and Gmail. The trouble for me and the chicken woman is picking the right door to pin our hopes and dreams and next family vacation on.
I love Google as a company. I love that they're not afraid to experiment, to blow billions of dollars on robotics, to make a car as a simple vanity project. But as a user of Google products, Google I/O makes me scared and confused. Was the lack of Google Glass on stage a sign that Google is backing away from that project and just focusing on watches now?
My problem is that every single one of these companies seems set on a sort of "ownership" of my living room
For me, the single most frustrating thing about yesterday's keynote was Android TV, Google's third-ish attempt to invade that space. It made me mad at the entire industry, really. We're about a decade into the "war for the living room," and consumers are caught in the crossfire of Microsoft, Sony, Apple, Amazon, Google, Nintendo and a handful of other warmongers. It's not that I mind innovative tech companies trying to make my TV experience better, my problem is that every single one of these companies seems set on a sort of "ownership" of my living room, with the only definition of success being the exclusion, or at least inconvenience, of all competition. Case in point: how many near-identical, totally incompatible dual analog controllers must I purchase to play video games until it's "enough"?
Another dual analog controller to buy
This sort of thinking, mirrored almost exactly in Samsung, Apple, and Google’s race to control the fitness ecosystem, is dangerous when mixed with Google's casual, experimental approach to product development. Does it really expect me to choose an exclusionary product and shape my habits around it, when a year from now Google has forgotten about this little experiment and it's on to the next thing?
Google: please keep experimenting, but try and make sure those experiments aren't a zero sum game. The chicken lady and I thank you.