Phew! On the heels of big events from Apple and Microsoft, Sergey and co. got their time to shine at the Google I/O event this week in San Francisco. The show kicked off with a a keynote that featured insight into Android Jelly Bean, the unveiling of the Nexus 7 tablet and Nexus Q media streaming device, plus some seriously amazing demos of Project Glass, among others. Was the two-hour-and-change press conference enough to push Google out in front of the competition? Check out our thoughts after the break.
It's sort of insane to think about how much Google revealed at its opening I/O keynote for 2012. Upon initial digestion, I'm most impressed by Glass, but perhaps more depressed about it than most. Why? As I see it, it's a really, really long ways from reality. The skydiving demo was monumentally impressive, but we know almost nothing about how it happened. Will Google pony up for unlimited LTE data for Glass wearers? What happens when you venture into the wilds of Yellowstone where there's no signal? Is there even infrastructure in place today for hordes of Glass wearers? I'm delighted that Glass is a real project at Google, but I'm trying to push it to the back of my mind for the next decade -- I doubt we'll see anything of substance on the mainstream front for a majorly long time, but I'd love to be proven wrong, and I can't wait to test out an Explorer Edition in 2013.
That aside, the Nexus 7 just feels like a rehashed Kindle Fire. A powerful one, yes, but it really doesn't strike me as the device that'll change the tablet game. Had ASUS somehow managed to hit the $99 price point (even subsidized with ads), then I'd be singing a different tune. I'm also distraught by how ecosystems truly are taking over, and sadly, diverging from one another. I feel like I'm being forced to get with the Google+ program or else miss out on loads of amazing Google content. And until Facebook allows me to port over years of memories, I'm not going anywhere. I'm stuck. (You can read more on my take on ecosystems here.)
I couldn't be happier about Jelly Bean. The features shown on stage are truly terrific, and the offline voice dictation and more useful voice searching both one-upped Siri in my mind. Part of me wishes the brains behind this stuff and Siri would just come together to create one all-encompassing ball of awesomeness, but I'm betting the SEC wouldn't take too kindly to that idea. Or most sane people, actually.
OK, so now Microsoft's scramble to announce Surface last week seems a bit more justified. But, just a bit. Those Windows 8 tablets have little in common with Google's budget offering, but I suppose the fact that the Nexus 7 too offers a touchscreen, web access and video playback makes it a threat to MS. But will Surface have an impact on Nexus? That's a bit less likely -- unless the software giant plans to steal Goog's thunder with a sub-$200 price tag of its own (which, based on the hardware we saw last Monday, would drop the company's margins far into the red). Both companies are targeting entirely different segments, with Surface aiming for price-elastic businesses and professionals, and Nexus 7 destined for the sensitive consumer market -- the folks who would otherwise be picking up a Kindle Fire.
It's that slate's fate that's a bit more questionable. A $199 7-inch tablet from a household name is what gave the Fire mass appeal, despite its locked-down OS and hefty build. Now, Google is stepping in with an arguably stronger offering in the Nexus 7, with a 1280 x 800 IPS display, quad-core Tegra 3 chipset and, perhaps the biggest feature of all, Android 4.1. That's not to mention the NFC functionality, accelerometer, GPS, magnetometer and gyroscope that combine to deliver an experience that goes far beyond content consumption. For reading books and watching flicks, the Fire's still got it, but if you're looking to do all that and more -- for the exact same price, mind you -- that aging tablet is about to be extinguished. I'm a Kindle Fire owner myself, and while I don't plan to unload that seven incher on Craigslist, my Nexus 7 order is signed and sealed -- and I'll be counting the days until it's delivered.
Sure, he's got one of the best jobs out there, but I don't envy Vic Gundotra -- not during the day one keynote, at least. The Google exec joked about his "Taylor Swift moment," and like the "Love Story" singer totally hijacked by a bit of unscripted Kanye craziness, it was hard not to feel for him. After all, he was tasked with presenting one of the least sexy announcements of the press conference (Google+ Events), only to be interrupted by co-founder, Sergey Brin, who hit the stage with Project Glass on his head, introducing a demo that employed skydivers leaping from a blimp above San Francisco, bike riders and rock climbers rappelling down the side of Moscone Center.
Granted, Project Glass isn't nearly as polished as Jelly Bean or either of the new Nexus devices, but it marks a return to the risk-taking company we all fell in love with, the Google that predates the shutdown of labs, a company focused not just on innovation, but way-out-there innovation. "Jetsons stuff," as our own Darren Murph put it during our liveblog. Project Glass is a reminder what Google was when it started, so it's only fitting that Brin was there to oversee it. It's also a solid reminder of the role Brin has taken on since co-founder Larry Page took over CEO duties from Eric Schmidt, as the guy who gets to ride around in self-driving cars and the like.
Best of all, the company capped that portion of the presentation off by letting the crowd of devs know that it's not simply a pipe dream, with early Glass developer units shipping next year. Well played, Google.
Even though we'd seen just about everything Google had to offer in the hour leading up the I/O keynote, I must say the Glass move to Kanye the keynote was a welcome surprise. As a semi-jaded Verizon Galaxy Nexus owner, I'm stoked to hear that the Android 4.1 update will begin rolling out next month. I don't expect it to cure my connectivity issues, but at least I'll have the freshest unskinned version of Google's prized OS, right? Google Now is going to be an immensely helpful tool -- especially when I'm traveling in an unfamiliar city and need to keep transportation details handy. After announcements like this one for Jelly Bean, I'm reminded of how few Android handsets actually sport the latest operating system. If history is any indication, those about to be ushered into the bowl of tasty candies will be even fewer than those that received a ticket to the Ice Cream Sandwich shindig.
I'm going to reserve judgment on the Nexus 7 ... for now. The folks from Mountain View showed us just enough during the keynote to highlight the strengths while providing some rather stiff competition for the Kindle Fire. However, the camera didn't look particularly impressive (I know, it's a tablet -- but still) and I'm not completely convinced the reading software offers a better experience than Amazon's option. The gaming demo looked pretty good, but we'll have to see just how well it performs when the Engadget crew puts it through its proper paces. Sure, the Nexus Q is quite dapper and I'm thrilled to see it being made in the States, but for what it is, I'm left wondering if folks will commit $300 to the cause. Right now, I'm thinking not.
So, about that Glass demo. I don't think I've seen a better or more entertaining method for an outfit to showcase how new tech can be used than with skydiving, mountain biking and rappelling. I mean, we were really only lacking some pyrotechnics of some sort (planned, of course) to cover all of the bases. Kudos to the crew for making folks eager to drop $1,500 on a pair of specs that aren't even 100 percent finished yet. Tim Cook may need go all X Games at Apple's fall event to keep up -- something along the lines of Red Bull's New Year's events, perhaps.
I'll hand it to Google -- a skydiving stunt, well-produced videos showcasing Project Glass and fun on-stage demos added up to a string of announcements that surpassed the pre-I/O hype. That keynote may have left me feeling exhilarated about the company's latest developments, but once that buzz wore off and Mountain View's hardware offerings reverted back to their life-like dimensions, things looked a little less thrilling. The blogosphere's early consensus on the Nexus Q media player seems to be a resounding "meh," and what else could it be given that $299 price tag? The Nexus 7 tablet looks more promising, as the Tegra 3 processor, NFC capability and 1280 X 800 IPS-based display all smack of a high-quality product. Just like Microsoft throwing its weight behind Windows 8 by outing the Surface slate, Google unveiling its own tablet to launch with Jelly Bean is a great way to show users exactly how it intends for the OS to be experienced.
And really, it was the software introduced during the keynote that has me the most stoked. Android 4.1 looks delicious, with offline voice input, dynamic new search functions and a slick retooled notifications system. Google is streamlining and enhancing its OS in all the right ways, and I imagine Android's notorious "learning curve" is leveling out in the process. As nice as Jelly Bean looks, though, I know it'll be ages before it makes its way to my Galaxy Note. Sure, there are far more Nexus S, Galaxy Nexus and Xoom owners out there, but one of the OS' strengths is its presence on such a wide variety of devices. Unless Google's going to commandeer both the hardware and software sides of its Android ecosystem, it needs to work with carriers, hardware manufacturers and developers to roll out its latest software to many more handsets -- and stat.
This is, without a doubt, the funnest Google keynote ever, and most of the fun stemmed from the fact that Project Glass was used as a helmet cam to broadcast live video feeds from the sky. Yet I'd be lying if I told you I wasn't disappointed. For something that has so much potential, Google's stunt did a terrible job at convincing me that this is the future. What does the interface look like? What does Sergey want to do with these glasses? What are the other applications? There's just so much more that I wanted to see in live action. But hey, Sergey's obviously very excited about it and couldn't keep it to himself, so we shall see where his team gets to in a year's time.
On the brighter side, Jelly Bean looks like it's all set to reduce the dumbness of Ice Cream Sandwich, and that's exactly what Android needs to shed its nerdy image. On top of the improved graphics performance, I'm particularly excited about the smarter widgets and input methods, while offline Google Maps and Google Play's new content types will also give Android a nice little boost. Naturally, this makes the highly affordable and lightweight Nexus 7 even more appealing to newcomers, though I do worry about the tablet's lack of a rear camera and SD card slot. These cost reductions may make sense to increase market penetration, but with internal storage limited to 16GB maximum and no neat way for expansion (let's face it: OTG is not a pretty alternative), comes a dilemma: you need a personal hotspot to access the rest of your content in the cloud while mobile, but that sucks up a considerable amount of bandwidth, and not everyone can afford unlimited tethering (if you can, chances are you already have a tablet). This means that the Nexus 7 may struggle to get people using the tablet outside the home, and perhaps it would make sense for carriers to bundle it with an unlimited mobile hotspot plan at lower rates.
And lastly, the Nexus Q. Even though it's marketed as a more capable and hackable streamer than the Apple TV, its $299 price tag will be a big obstacle for most people. But then again, this futuristic-looking device isn't made for "most people." Buddying up with the renowned Triad Speakers (I know these guys, and they mean business when it comes to audio), Google clearly wants the Nexus Q to be seen as a high-end smart entertainment hub; and by taking advantage of users with a higher budget, the company will slowly turn Android into a cool party machine. Seriously, the more I look at the introduction video clips, the more I want to try it with a bunch of friends. That said, I still hope the Q will get subsidized in the near future, which would obviously require the multimedia part of Google Play to do very well. So start spending, folks!
There were a lot of big developments to digest during Google's I/O 2012 day one keynote, but one small, almost throwaway line stood out to me. While running down the specs of the Nexus Q, Google's Matt Hershenson noted that the device has a micro-USB port to support future accessories and "encourage general hackability." With an audience primarily made up of developers, that statement was unsurprisingly greeted with a round of applause. It's also something you don't usually hear a large company say about a big new product -- Microsoft and the Kinect comes to mind, but Redmond's embrace of DIY culture only came after hackers and modders had their way with the device.
It's not all that surprising coming from Google, though. This is the same company that's doing some very public experimenting of its own with Project Glass, a product that Google is more than happy to show off in a decidedly unfinished state (albeit on its own terms) to garner feedback. It also announced at I/O that it will be finally be putting the device into the hands of at least some developers next year in the form of the $1,500 Glass Explorer Edition (so far only an option for those actually in attendance at I/O). That's not quite a "Hacker Edition," but Google did say that it's doing so in an effort to let folks "help shape it."
Of course, those are just a couple of examples from one corner of Google, but it's at least somewhat encouraging that, as it has in increasingly bigger hand in hardware development, it's seemingly intent on leaving a small crack open for developers, DIYers and hackers to keep their hands in things as well.
What a day. Google unloaded a lot on us at its opening Google I/O 2012 keynote, with a trio of hardware highlights and a new version of its mobile OS. Jelly Bean's not the revelation that was ICS, but it'll make living in Google's growing ecosystem a bit easier with Google Now, its improved home screen and refreshed notifications system, among other additions. Jelly Bean's first residence, the Nexus 7 tablet, however, has the potential to be a much bigger deal. Naturally, everyone's comparing the thing to the Kindle Fire, and while the screen size and price tag are the same, such a comparison strikes me as somewhat inappropriate.
The Nexus 7's a proper tablet providing the full, stock Android experience and new, if not bleeding-edge, quad-core silicon -- not some bit of last-gen hardware running a closed custom OS. Because Google and ASUS are selling a quality, 7-inch slate with an HD IPS display for the same price as the Fire, they stand a good chance to get a meaningful number of new folks on the Android tablet bandwagon. Android slate sales have lagged since they first hit the market, but Amazon showed that such devices can be sold in bulk when the price is right, and the Nexus 7 provides an even better value proposition than its Kindle competition. Now, I'm not saying it'll overtake the iPad in market share, but I could certainly see the Nexus 7 chip away at Apple's lead in the tablet space. I can honestly say that this is the first Android slate that has me truly tempted to part with my own cash.
As for Google's other Nexus reveal, the Q, I'm left wondering how it'll be received by the buying public. Sure, the hardware is slick, sturdy and handsome. And, I'm enamored with its encouragement of real, human-to-human social interaction through an 'everyone's a DJ' party approach to music streaming. The problem is, such functionality is being pitched as the Nexus Q's raison d'être, and at $300 a pop, I'm not sure how many party people will find it worth the money. Most of the time when I'm listening to tunes at home, it's just me and my dog, and he's yet to express displeasure with my DJ-ing skills or demonstrate he knows how to use Android. My point is, I don't see the soiree sphere aspect holding that much appeal, particularly in light of cheaper options that can do what the Nexus Q does while also granting access to content outside the Google ecosystem. That said, I love that it's built right here in the USA, and I dig its 25-watt amp that provides a quality audio punch. I'm also looking forward to seeing what comes of the "hackability" and accessories enabled by the micro-USB port -- but for now, you can count me among the Nexus Q skeptics.
Lastly, Project Glass, the unexpected star of day one of the Google I/O 2012 show. What an entrance! From Sergey Brin hijacking the day's proceedings to the skydiving, biking and repelling that brought several pairs of Glasses to the stage, it was an incredible PR stunt. And it worked. The buzz around Project Glass is now louder than ever, and Brin further fed the hype by allowing I/O attendees to pre-order a developer pair of the tech specs for $1500 each. We also got a few more tidbits about the forthcoming optics, namely that Google's still experimenting with connectivity options and various control inputs (touch, voice, and head gestures). Like Brian, I love seeing Google on the bleeding edge of innovation with Project Glass, but unfortunately, all those unresolved issues mean that we won't be seeing hardware on the heads of consumers any time soon. Good thing I'll only have to wait a year to get my mitts on a pair... I know a couple guys with Explorer Edition specs on the way.
Best Google event ever -- if not one of the best tech events for anyone, in terms of pure showmanship. Most of the two hours was pure meat, and even if you argue that most of the Project Glass segment was fluff, it was exciting fluff.
The highlight is definitely the Nexus 7. Yes, it's a cheap tablet with no rear camera and no SD card slot. But it remains true that you're looking at a $199 tablet with a quad-core processor, a high-quality display, and the latest version of Android. How can you ignore that? Despite Google's lack of marketing reach, this is by far the best value for the money in Android tablets. Android 4.1 fixes a lot of the chronic performance issues that have dogged Android while one-upping (if very clearly riffing on) Siri. The one catch is that I can't see Google suddenly moving the needle on Android market share -- the Nexus 7 is being sold at cost, and any retailers that carry it will certainly push the price out of that magic zone.
If there's a deeper concern, it's the Nexus Q; not for the $299 price (it's a more self-contained device than the Apple TV), but for what it says about Google's ecosystem. Remember Android@Home last year? Nothing materialized from third parties, and here we are a year later with the only halfway related accessory coming from Google itself. Either Google took the reins shortly afterwards, or it was met with dead silence from third parties. Whatever you think of Apple, it has no trouble marshaling accessory support, and that goes a long way towards courting fence-sitters. I hope Google isn't leaning too heavily on the Nexus Q to prove that Android can do whole-home media, because it's too expensive and too Google-specific (what, no DLNA or Netflix?) to really fly.