Ninety minutes into today’s Google I/O keynote, at the precise moment my right buttcheek began to notify me that it was about to fall into a most uncomfortable, tingling sleep, a Google executive booted up Spotify on her Android phone and started playing a Skrillex song from the stage. I rolled my eyes. Then, as the interminable pulsing beat wormed its way to the inevitable drop, the executive tapped the phone’s screen and posed a question to the device’s black mirror: What’s his real name? Without hesitation, the phone redirected to a familiar white Google page proudly displaying the answer — Sonny John Moore — along with a picture of the undercut-having, beat-dropping DJ looking angsty. The feature was part of Google’s Now on Tap mobile search, which reads the context of whatever app you have open and delivers answers to queries based on what you’re doing in the moment. The demo was simple, elegant, and enough to make me forget, at least for a moment, about my right buttcheek.
If you’re looking to understand what Google hopes to accomplish with its wildly popular Android operating system in the coming years, Now on Tap is a good place to start. It’s a sleek, impressive, and ambitious demonstration of machine learning that sits always at attention, ready to sift through the pile of data your smartphone is constantly producing in order to make your life easier. Now on Tap is the connective tissue between you and your apps and the internet at large — your very own search butler. And if it works as seamlessly on a street corner as it does from the comfy confines of a keynote stage, it’s also a triumph that suggests Google is poised to surpass Apple when it comes to mobile design.
Late Apple chief Steve Jobs rather famously noted that "design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works." By that definition, the company Jobs founded has reason to be more than a little spooked by today’s Android keynote. Taken together, the rather small Android product features that Google announced — gesture-controlled smartwatches, context-based mobile search, facial-recognition-powered photo searching and storage, offline maps with turn-by-turn directions, and lightweight mobile processing for the internet’s "next billion" users in the developing world — come together as a comprehensive suite of technology that appears to be without peer. Whether it’s a $100 smartphone designed as gateway to the internet in a place with historically low smartphone penetration or a $500 high-end gadget squarely targeted toward early adopters, the vast and comprehensive mobile ecosystem revealed in today's keynote is deeply in control of your data and nearly always in your life. It also, for lack of a better word, works.
And that’s really all that matters when we’re talking about Android or iOS or any of the digital networks that surround every facet of our lives, both on- and offline. At its most extreme, a good suite of mobile products will not only hold its user hostage but also help them cultivate a healthy case of Stockholm syndrome. To do this it has to work. It has to be able to look at your photos and recognize faces and the places those faces were in when the shutter clicked. It has to be able to remind you that you’re going to Chicago next month and Hey, why don’t you give your lovely Aunt Mildred a ring since you guys haven’t seen each other in a bit and — well, would you look at that! Looks like it’s time for you to get in the car if you’re going to make that appointment in Menlo Park by 2:00 P.M. Today, Google proved Android is a powerful captor.
Of course, there’s a price for all of this. The price is your data — and, by proxy, your privacy. Want to be able to find that picture of your second cousin you took six years ago? Let us look at and analyze the faces in every single one of your photos to figure it out. Want to know Skrillex’s full name? Let us see what's in your headphones right now. Need that reminder to call your college roommate? Let us know where you are now and where you’re going to be next week and yeah, we should probably have your address book handy, too. You haven’t booked the trip yet? Don’t worry, we’ve got your search history right here so we figured you’d be booking the trip soon.
Let us know everything about you. We promise it’ll be worth your while.
This information and privacy tradeoff is nothing new, but today’s keynote showed perhaps the fullest realization of the power of buying into an ecosystem whole hog. And in contrast to Apple’s beautifully designed — and, in many cases, prohibitively expensive — hardware, Google touted and demonstrated Android’s ability to provide an immersive digital ecosystem at staggering scale. Google’s feel-good portion of the keynote, which focused on bringing the mobile web to the developing world, was as much about indoctrinating the next billion inside the Google ecosystem as it was about delivering universal access to information. And with dirt-cheap and powerful Chromebooks and Android One smartphones, Google is arguably the only company even capable of this kind of market grab.
If Google is successful with all this, it will prove to be an unprecedented level of control for a company that arguably has more access to individual information than any entity on the planet. During the vanity stats portion of the keynote, Google exec Sundar Pichai revealed that six separate Google services (search, YouTube, Maps, Gmail, Android, and Chrome) all have roughly 1 billion users or more. Even third-party apps, arguably the only escape hatch out of Google’s walled garden of software and hardware, operate within and must defer to Android’s connective tissue features if they want to take advantage of things like On Tap. Google I/O is billed as a conference for developers, and today Google courted them and made them hoot and holler and clap at a number of features that promise to make their programs better, faster, and more efficient. But almost every single feature on display today was about Google’s play for more control.
In this sense, the keynote, which prominently featured female executives and employees of color, was strangely Jobsian. Sure, it lacked sexiness — at one point a Google executive asked the crowd if there were any Star Wars fans in the crowd, and was met with a deafening chorus of woos and applause — but it was a prominent display of ambition, control, and design. Rather than simply build into the Internet of Things, Google built and unveiled an operating system for it. Why be the one to physically manufacture the smart locks that will secure your home of the future when Google can build the infrastructure that the locks run on? That’s control.
Skrillex demonstration aside, very little about today’s keynote was flashy, exciting, or engineered to echo through the culture. It was a series of rather incremental updates; perfectly subdued glimpses of a digital ecosystem that is becoming more fully realized. Set against Apple’s flash and aesthetic, it was almost boring. But it’s this insidious power that makes Google not only a transformative tech company but an almost elemental force of nature. Sure, it wasn’t all that pretty, but everything fit together seamlessly. And, most importantly, it worked.