Google I/O wrapped up last week, concluding what seemed to be a month of conferences, including Apple’s WWDC and Microsoft’s Surface announcement. There’s finally some exciting stuff coming out of Google. In particular, their Nexus 7 tablet is receiving high praise from early reviews, and the newly released Android 4.1 (aka Jelly Bean) seems to have made some small but important refinements. On top of all that, Google put out a mobile app for their Dropbox competitor, Drive, and more importantly, brought a seriously good version of Chrome to iOS.
Looking at the mobile space, Google is finally starting to tell something of a story. The last iteration of Android, Ice Cream Sandwich, really brought the OS into its own. It’s not longer an ugly iOS-alike, it’s an OS with style and ideas, and it seems to execute on them fluidly in many regards. For Jelly Bean, Google made it a priority to achieve a constant sixty frames per second, thus removing all traces of lag from the OS. Seeing a device stumble and work its way through simple processes like turning a page or switching a home screen may not destroy a user’s experience, but it clearly diminishes it.
Nexus 7 is Google’s way to show off what they’ve done. It’s a $200 tablet aimed square at Amazon’s Kindle Fire, and the Nexus seems to be the clear winner. Of course, Google has almost bragged that there’s next to no margin on the device, which might just be a success in that they’re at least not subsidizing it. It looks to be a solid device for content consumption, but it remains to be seen how it’ll make a larger impact. Even if the Nexus 7 is a success in its class, it’s still a matter of a major league player bragging about making a dent in the minor league. It’s a good piece of cheap hardware, maybe even a great one, but that doesn’t mean it’ll have a greater impact, particularly with the lack of solid developer support for tablet specific Android apps.
Still, the Nexus 7 looks good, and Google has some fine looking pieces in Jelly Bean. Rather than making a cheap Siri competitor, Google created Google Now, which, though it functions largely like Siri but with a root in Google’s search (naturally), it also attempts to learn your habits and interests and display to you relevant information before you ask for it. Maybe it’ll pop up the score of a game or that you’re better off avoiding a certain route home. That’s a seriously intelligent assistant when it starts to require no user input.
They’ve also made a serious disruption on Apple’s turf. Alternative browsers on iOS are almost doomed to fail - Apple, for security reasons, won’t let third party web browsers be anything but Safari in a different skin. On top of that, various requirements make it run slower. That ought to doom other browsers to failure, but Google’s UI for Chrome on iOS is slick enough to warrant a switch. It’s usability is far beyond Safari. Add in deep integration with desktop Chrome including tab syncing, and suddenly Safari is out of the dock. This might not mean much - after all, no one’s making money here - but it opens up Apple for criticism. Why is there no way to change the default browser?
This all seems to show a Google that’s getting it together in the mobile space. Of course, there’s good reason to believe they don’t have their entire picture together (including a seriously botched and embarrassing conference for Google Maps as a preemptive strike against Apple’s new Maps app), and TechCrunch’s Alexia Tsotsis wrote a fine piece on Wednesday titled, “Remember When Google Was a Search Engine?” that speaks to the matter in more detail. Additionally, other news from last week only further proves this point. Google put out a half baked media center that could only have made sense years ago, and Google’s previous version of Android, released eight and a half months ago, has only now reached 10% market share among Android handsets. This of course is bad news for the fine looking Jelly Bean, which isn’t likely to get out quickly. Still, it means we’re seeing some competition. Apple may be setting the trends, but Google might just be able to keep up. They aren’t there just yet, and their broader plans may be a bit messy, but Google’s mobile story is starting to look a lot better.
Yesterday afternoon Google put out something of a surprise: a redesigned Google+ app for iOS. Google is notorious for putting out iOS apps that range from mediocre to careless. Late last year Google finally (after over four years of iOS’s existence) put out a native Gmail app for the platform. It’s biggest selling point was Push, except that on launching the application, every single user received an error message (which is generally considered a poor UX), and Push didn’t work. Several months later, Sparrow beat the Gmail team to releasing a quality email app. So when Google launches a new iteration of its Google+ app on iOS before it launches on Android, there’s a lot to say. The most surprising thing: it might be pretty good.
The design of the new app looks stellar. It’s clearly designed to be mobile first, rather than as a mobile access point of a broader experience. There’s no sign of iOS styled navigation (although Apple’s recently ubiquitous gray linen makes an appearance). The navigation seems to be elegantly placed within the interface. Most important here is how it stacks up against Facebook’s app, and it seems like Google+ is taking the lead. Even the profile pages, which seem to be stealing Facebook’s cover image concept, seem better displayed. Facebook’s mobile app frames individual elements separately, whereas in Google+ they are cleanly presented in big font. All of the content is presented large, which is important when you’re staring at a tiny screen - even a nice one. Facebook’s app is thorough, but it’s clearly only a mobile approximation of the greater experience. Google seems to have taken a hint from Path and other hot mobile first social apps and created an experience that thrives on mobile and mobile’s strengths. Here we have a platform rich with data and means of interaction and yet they’re only loosely taken advantage of.
Equally notable is the iOS first launch. Google notes that an Android update is only a few weeks away, but it must be clear even to them that ignoring iOS is a losing strategy. More importantly, app adoption on iOS is far stronger than on Android. If Google wants to increase Google+’s use and user base, dominating on the dominant platform is the right decision. Or maybe even Google finds coding for iOS easier…
It will be interesting to see how apps like Path or even non-social apps like Clear begin to impact mobile design. Users are becoming more familiar and comfortable with the platforms, and sticking to designs with little difference from a meant-for-mobile website simply isn’t engaging. Facebook has on many occasions discussed how they see mobile as the future. A significant portion of their engagement is through mobile, and that will only grow. Focusing on the device your user is always with is the right strategy. Facebook has noted that moving forward, their work on mobile will increase, and that they see it as becoming a far more significant focus of their efforts. Surprisingly, Google seems to have beat them to creating a more engaging mobile experience. One has to wonder if Google’s recent acquisition of the talented Milk team had anything to do with this. For either party, Path might be worth picking up simply for their design efforts. After this, we ought to be due for something interesting coming out of Facebook.
Some news and rumors out of Google last week. First, Google released a promo video for Project Glass, their (previously top secret) augmented reality glasses. The video shows map overlays, location based alerts, and deep Google+ integration. Everyone seems to be using Google+, so it’s clear that this is a vision of the future. Really, being a ‘vision’ seems to be the problem here. Anyone can throw together a prototype video or a mockup for a groundbreaking product . What matters is if these glasses will actually function as well as Google’s vision of them suggests.
It’s hard to tell if this is a technology that may become ubiquitous. It’s a scary notion that we may one day have Google+ alerts in the corner of our eye at every moment of the day. Is this something we want? Won’t a phone alert be good enough? I previously chided Google for continually racing to catch up rather than looking toward the future. It’s good to see that they can still be forward thinkers, but we’re still a long way away from determining if their view is brilliant or crazy. Reportedly, Robert Scoble caught Sergey Brin wearing the glasses in public but wasn’t allowed a look. The Verge reports Brin saying, “right now you really just see it reboot.” It’s not that much of a surprise. Hopefully a year from now Google has something exciting to show for themselves - something remotely near to their video.
Also out last week were further rumors of a Google branded tablet. There have been rumors for a while now, even suggesting it might launch soon, but The Verge reports that it’s been pushed to July for cost cutting efforts. Google’s tablet is rumored to be the same seven inch form factor as the Kindle Fire, and it’s clear that the Fire is what Google is looking to compete with. Amazon has essentially commandeered Android for themselves. The Fire entirely hides its Android roots, and its OS is fully branded as Amazon. It isn’t the finest tablet in the world, but at $200, it’s selling wildly and has a massive hold on the Android tablet market.
Eric Schmidt is quoted as saying that Google plans to release “a tablet of the highest quality,” within this time frame. But with Google looking to keep the price low enough to compete with the Fire, this is going to be quite a feat. At $200 you can only get so much performance. No one is looking for this machine to be a powerhouse, but making the tablet run smoothly would be a nice feature. It’s possible that Google will end up heavily subsidizing these tablets (that is, taking a nice big loss), so that they can make an impact in their favor. Right now, they really need it.
Without doubt, Google would like to go after the iPad, but again, at $200 you’re dealing with an entirely different class of product. For a while now there have been rumors that Apple is looking into making a seven(ish) inch iPad. John Gruber of Daring Fireball has stated that he knows of prototypes of the machine inside of Apple. This certainly doesn’t mean that it will come to market, and it’s likely that it wouldn’t make it for as low as $200. It might cannibalize sales of Apple’s higher end iPad, but it’s clear that Apple doesn’t mind doing this if it means taking the market from their competition as well. Unless Google’s tablet truly is “of the highest quality”, a cheaper iPad would likely hurt Google’s efforts.
In just over a year, Instagram has amassed an impressive user base of over 30 million - and only on the iPhone. Yesterday, Instagram finally launched for Android. The app is nearly identical, lacking only a few small features. But this is more important for the Instagram community as a whole than simply for owners of Android phones. Instagram has succeeded wildly in an over saturated marked - over saturated with photo editors, photo filters, photo albums, over saturated with micro social networks and mobile only social networks, not to mention the big players. It’s easy to see why this is and how Instagram already has the ball rolling. Now with their expansion to Android, they can ride the momentum.
Social networks have an inherent problem for adopters. There’s no reason to use it if no one you know is on it. Of course, many have come to surpass this hurdle, but many many more have failed. The App Store is littered with mobile only social networks that have received only the slightest of press coverage. Even hot apps like Path and Highlight are hard sells outside of San Francisco - the tech press seems to ignore that there are areas lacking ‘obvious’ things like heavy Twitter use, let alone smart phone saturation.
Instagram provides more than a social network. As much as they want us to treat it like a rigorous network, it isn’t, at least not first and foremost. Instagram allowed for heavy adoption, because even without other friends on the service, the app still generated a product for users: photographs that looked good. Allowing for easy sharing to Twitter and Facebook proliferated Instagram’s clear style. You can tell an Instagram photo apart from anything else. In this way Instagram has been able to gain its massive installation of users. People can see why they should get Instagram. A few acquaintances being on Path is hardly a compelling argument.
Instagram’s social aspect is good and well, but the company wants it to be the app’s main focus going forward. Now it can be. Instagram has been opened up to nearly every smartphone owner. It doesn’t need this social aspect to succeed, but a stream littered with photos is a joy to browse through. It’s a different medium than Facebook or Path. With the certain coming influx of Android users, the social aspect is bound to become a powerful player.
It’s understandable that it took Instagram’s small team so long to bring about an Android app. Now that they have, the lack of a web interface is even more noticeable. It’s a bit bizarre that we’re unable to browse others’ profiles on anything but the tiny phone app. There isn’t even a way to navigate through a user’s previous photos without a direct link. The team’s dedication to quality is evident, but when so many third parties have managed something using Instagram’s API, even a simple interface would be fine for now. Much has been made of these mobile-first social networks. It certainly makes a lot of sense to design around the device you have at all times. But your phone isn’t necessarily what you spend most of your time on. Something is sure to be in the pipeline. Impressively, the absence doesn’t hurt Instagram - it just doesn’t help.
It’ll be exciting to watch Instagram’s expansion during their second year. They’ve built up a strong reputation. They have a great core product, and the social element is about to grow significantly stronger. If they already aren’t, Instagram is about to become the first big success in the mobile-first social space - and that’s a lot harder than filtering a photograph.