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.