A great day for Android at Google I/O; not convinced by Google TV

Yesterday’s Google I/O was remarkable for several reasons. The most significant was not a specific technical announcement, but rather the evidence for a successful Google-led alliance against Apple in the mobile device market (and perhaps also in home entertainment with Google TV). Apple has hardly put a foot wrong since Jobs rejoined the company in 1996 – well, aside from a few minor lapses like the iPod Hi-Fi. With steadily increasing sales for the iPhone, it was beginning to look as if Apple would do to the mobile phone market what it did to the market for portable MP3 players, including the all-important App Store.

After Google I/O 2010 that seems less likely. Google showed off the momentum behind Android – there are now over 100,000 Android activations daily, according to Vic Gundotra – and then gave a compelling demo of new features in Android 2.2, code-named Froyo, including:

  • New Dalvik just-in-time compiler with 2-5x speed improvement in CPU-bound code
  • Better Exchange support with account auto-discovery, calendar sync, Global Address List support, and device policy support
  • V8 JavaScript engine in Android browser, 2-3x speed improvement
  • Apps can backup data to the cloud, for instant restore on a replacement device
  • Ability to make Android phone a portable wi-fi hotspot for your Windows, Apple or Linux machine
  • Stream your home media library to your Android device
  • Cloud to device messaging
  • Crash reports with stacktrace uploaded for developers to review
  • Some great demos of voice input combined with Google search and maps

In some ways the details do not matter; what does matter is that Google persuaded the world that Android mobiles would be more than a match for iPhones, but without the Apple lock-in, lock-out, and censorship.

Support for Adobe Flash is almost more a political than a technical matter in this context. I cannot help wondering whether Microsoft is working on Silverlight for Android; it should be, but probably is not. The Mono team on the other hand is there already.

Apple now has a bit of a PR problem; and while I am sure it will ride it out successfully and impress us at WWDC next month, the fact that it has a PR problem at all is something of a novelty.

Next came Google TV, with which I was less impressed, and not only because the demos were shaky. I understand the thinking behind it. You could almost see the $ signs revolving when Google mentioned the $70 billion annual spend on TV advertising. Google TV adds an Android device and internet connection to your living room television set, bringing YouTube to the largest screen in the house, enabling web browsing, and opening up interesting opportunities such as running Android apps, combining TV and web search, and overlaying TV with social media interaction.

It sounds good; but while I am a firm believer in the Internet’s power to disrupt broadcasting – especially here in the UK where we have BBC iPlayer – I am not sure that injecting the Web into TV like this is such a big deal. In fact, games consoles do this already. Sony’s Howard Stringer was at Google I/O to support the announcement, which has his company’s participation, but a PS3 already offers BBC iPlayer, Adobe Flash 9, and a basic web browser. I use this from time to time and enjoy it, but a TV is not great for web browsing since you are sitting at a distance, and wireless keyboards are a nuisance kicking round the living room – we tried that for a while with Windows Media Center. Activities like online shopping or simply Tweeting are easier to do on other devices.

Maybe it is just waiting for the right implementation. If it does take off though, I will be interested to see what the broadcasters think of it. What if Google manages to serve contextual ads based on the content you are viewing? That would not please me if I had invested millions in creating that content, specifically in order to attract advertising.

It may be developers that make or break Google TV. Add a few compelling apps that work best in this context, and we will all want one.

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  5. What I want from a mobile phone running Google’s Android