Looking at this week’s Google I/O announcements with a Microsoft focus, it’s hard to miss the ways in which Google is directly and indirectly undercutting Microsoft’s mobile efforts, especially Windows Phone. No, Microsoft isn’t Google’s key foe in this market, but then the search giant has worked to keep it that way. And eliminating key Microsoft differentiators is an obvious way to maintain the status quo.
One of the things I immediately liked about Windows Phone was that Microsoft wasn’t simply copying the competition, as Google has done to Apple’s iPhone and iOS with Android. Instead, it had thought through what it was that people wanted to accomplish with smart phones and tried to do things better. Not just different, but better. Part of this differentiation was the Metro design language, which took the universally understood signage of public transportation—clear iconography, flat typography, and a rejection of skeuomorphism—and applied it to mobile. Metro made iOS look old-fashioned. Because it was.
The problem with this kind of advantage is that other platform makers can replicate it. Note that I didn’t use the word “copy,” mostly because of the negative connotations. Good ideas are good ideas, and there’s a reason Google didn’t copy iOS’s skeuomorphic designs. There’s also a reason both Google and Apple did ape Metro, with Android’s Material Design and the iOS design aesthetic that debuted in iOS 7, respectively. Put politely, these two systems were inspired by the clean Metro design. And now they have it too. This is bad for Microsoft, but inevitable because it is good for users. (The very notion of a game app using a faux green felt background in order to emulate a gaming table from an 1800’s steamboat is so quaint and ludicrous it defies explanation.)
So that’s one differentiator down. But over the past few years, Google has kept chipping away. Chipping endlessly away. And we saw more of this work to obviate Microsoft’s differentiators at this week’s Google I/O. A few examples, none of which are part of the core Android M updates the firm touted so prominently in the keynote, include:
Internet of Things. Google described its IoT efforts as Android Wear “for more devices,” and in the same way that Windows 10 IoT brings a common set of developer capabilities down to a new range of device types, so too does Android. But here, the scale of Android adoption makes its smart home ambitions more realistic than are Microsoft’s. And of course the firm recently bought smart home device maker Nest: it will build on this technology to continue “reimagining traditional home devices” using a new connected Android-based IoT platform called “Brillo” and an inter-device communications layer called “Weave.” Based on the schedule—Brillo doesn’t even hit developer preview until Q3 2015—it’s pretty clear that these technologies are a response to what others—especially Microsoft—are doing in this space. (Put another way, Google’s IoT platform will ship two full years after its wearable platform.)
Google Now third party app integration. To my mind, this was the biggest announcement at Google I/O, and while you may see this as a Cortana competitor—which, of course it is—I’m thinking of this capability a little more generally. Indeed, these Google Now improvements are big enough to warrant a dedicated article, so I’ll summarize it like so. With Windows Phone, Microsoft created a “glanceable” interaction model with live tiles where you didn’t always need to go in and out of apps repeatedly (“whack a mole,” the iOS interaction model) to find out what is going on; instead, you could glance at live tiles and see that you missed a call from Bob, read the subject lines of the past several emails, get a weather update, and so on. This system is better than what came before. But with Google Now, Google is taking it to the next level: based on the context (where you are, what you are doing, what you are interested in), Android will proactively provide you with what you need at that moment—directions, a boarding pass, directions to the nearest gas stations—and it will soon do so using third-party apps. So you arrive at the airport and get an Uber car, automatically. This doesn’t just eliminate “whack a mole,” it eliminates the need to ever explicitly run certain apps. This is a big deal, folks. And if you want to stretch a bit, you might argue that Google Now is potentially what Android becomes in the future. The rest of it could just fade away into the background.
Google Photos with unlimited storage. All three of the major mobile platform makers offer reasonable photo solutions—ways to acquire, manage, and edit photos on the device and back them up to the cloud. And generally speaking, most people simply use the photo capabilities that come on their devices rather than choose third-party solutions for different parts of the usage chain. I’ve argued that OneDrive is the ideal cloud storage system for photos because it’s the only solution available everywhere, and if you pay for Office 365 ($69.99 a year for individuals, $99.99 a year for families) you get unlimited storage. With the new version of Google Photos, Google is providing unlimited storage “on all devices” (i.e. all Android and iOS devices) with just a few caveats (16 MP limit on individual photos, 1080p for videos). It has what looks like great management and viewing experiences, and makes it easy to jump around in time, a key issue for photo collections on mobile devices. And of course the requisite sharing functionality. So is this a big deal? No. But it’s a step above what Microsoft is doing. And the only logical response is for photos backed up to OneDrive from mobile devices—or, better, all photos—to not count against your storage allotment.
The next billion users. Before Microsoft started targeting affordable handsets explicitly, Nokia used to talk about “the next billion users,” those people who don’t yet have a smart phone (let alone a computer of any kind) because they live in emerging markets. Now Google talks about this all the time. Last year, Google took Microsoft’s strategy and ran with it using an initiative called Android One, and at Google I/O, the firm offered some updates around availability, micro payments, and more. But the big deal here, I think, can be and was stated more simply. “Most of the next billion smart phone users will be running Android.” This strategy is also being extended to Chrome OS and Chromebooks, which are to PCs what low-cost Android One devices are to smart phones: a way for the poor to get connected with the world.
Offline maps in Google Maps. This is a big one, and while I realize that HERE Maps and Drive+ are not technically Microsoft products—and are available on other platforms—they ship with Microsoft’s Lumia devices and can be considered a key differentiator. Most because of the ability to download maps for offline use, meaning you can still get maps, turn-by-turn navigation, and other features when your connection is bad or non-existent. Google bringing offline capabilities to its Maps products was inevitable—I can’t believe it hasn’t happened already and, no, the pseudo-offline capability that’s there now does not count. (This functionality won’t ship until “later this year,” Google says.)
External storage. Google has been sending mixed messages about external storage—i.e. micro SD cards for the most part—in recent months. But at I/O it said that it would now support a scheme in which external storage devices are “adopted,” or seamlessly managed by the system as if they were part of internal storage. Which, when you think about it, is a much nicer system than forcing users to manage what stuff is stored where (as we do in Windows Phone/Windows 10). Sanity prevails.
VR/Cardboard. When Google announced Cardboard last year, it seemed like a bit of a joke. Instead, it appears that Cardboard is an affordable virtual reality platform, just like Raspberry Pi 2 is an affordable new computing platform. There are over 100 Cardboard compatible apps. Dozens of hardware designs and partners. And with the new SDK, support for both Android and iOS, and bigger, phablet-class devices. VR—like Raspberry Pi 2—has seen great success in education, and with a new offering called Expeditions, Google can offer classrooms virtual field trips in a box. It’s pretty amazing stuff. And unlike HoloLens, it’s actually affordable. And it’s part of a real platform, with stereoscopic VR camera solutions (“Jump”) and, coming soon, YouTube distribution.
This list doesn’t include the developer advances related to Android and Google’s other platforms, many of which—app links in web search—that will be familiar to Windows Phone users. And there are others, like an interesting partnership with Udacity to create nano degrees for Android developers, that are unique. But you get the idea.
Chip. Chip, chip, chip.