Apple Links: Beyond the Apple Ecosystem (and other stuff Of Interest)

There’s been an interesting thing happening in the last few weeks — I’m seeing people who are all self-defined as being heavily committed to the Apple/IOS/Mac platform and ecosystem talking about feeling like they need to understand the other ecosystems out there. One thing that seems to have started this thinking is Amazon’s Echo product that many of them have gotten and liked, but there’s also a growing recognition that Google’s Android needs to be part of the discussion.

I think the subtext of this is a feeling among many of us that Apple’s products aren’t necessarily better any more, much less the best of show we’ve been accustomed to thinking about Apple. I’ve been feeling this, and so for the first time I sat down and watched the Google I/O keynote live, just to get a sense of what they’re doing in the Google world and where their priorities are.

I came away quite impressed. I know from watching the tech world write about previous Google I/O keynotes that they aren’t always successful, but this year I felt like they really nailed the presentation, and the technologies really impressed me.

One thing that hit me hard: Apple is a company that’s built a lot of its reputation and identity around data privacy, in part because Google’s business is to a good degree built around acquiring data for distribution and analysis, and Google is creating some solutions that may well turn this back at Apple with their deep learning tools, creating solutions that people want (and will give up their data to drive) in ways that Apple can’t replicate. Apple has Siri (which I rarely use and feel little need for), and Amazon has Alexa, and now Google is coming out with it’s own home assistant , and they showed off capabilities where it can use context and its history with you to power interactions that Siri can’t come close to.

They’ve announced their first home assistant similar to Echo, and the demos and industrial design blew me away; I never had interest in the Echo, but this new Google Home assistant might be on my buy-to-try list.

Apple’s also been criticized recently for not pushing into the VR space, a criticism I’ve felt was premature in the market — but now Google is burning in a VR platform into the new Android release and releasing a reference platform for it called Daydream. And I found myself thinking it’s something I’d buy an android phone for, again as that buy-to-try experimental toy.

Google also announced a direct competitor to FaceTime called Duo, and a direct competitor to Messages with Allo that has some neat integrations that limit your need to bounce in and out of the app while tracking down information or performing certain apps. What I really find interesting here is that it feels like a strategic play against Apple’s unwillingness to leave it’s own ecosystem: Messages works with your friends with IOS devices, but Allo potentially will work with your friends with any phone — will that cause people to migrate away from Messages? And if so, will that make it easier over time for them to consider a non-IOS phone? I think three’s a fascinating long-term play here against Apple’s strengths by pushing any-platform capabilities.

That said, there are some weird features in a classic Google way, including the app offering prewritten responses that are contextually created, which I find technologically fascinating but as a person a bit freaky — expect people to start publishing weird auto-generated conversations the way they post the best crazy auto-correct bloopers.

Android Wear 2.0 showed some nice refinements of their watch technologies, something that had me thinking that Apple needed to be taking detailed notes because it showed a lot of capabilities that Apple’s WatchOS isn’t doing very well.

Ultimately, I came away from the keynote with two takeaways:

  • Google is figuring out how to turn what Apple has used as a competitive advantage (data privacy, deep vertical integration leading to best of show application capabilities) into a disadvantage by playing to the ability to go cross-platform including running on IOS and by turning having access that data into features people are going to want and Apple is going to struggle offering as long as their data privacy remains a tent pole capability.

  • Apple’s offerings feel like they are falling behind the curve — Daydream is impressive in demo and if it comes close to it in reality is going to make things challenging if Apple doesn’t announce something similar at WWDC; Google’s assistant seems to blow away Siri, and now both Google and Amazon have that in-house assistant and Apple has… a flakey siri on a first generation watch.

It feels a bit weird to say this: I now see Apple’s upcoming WWDC as a situation where it’s playing catch-up with Google on various fronts, and that’s not a position the company has had to worry about. More than that, I think Google is pushing forward in areas — especially their machine learning capabilities — where it’s unclear that Apple can catch up. We’ll have to wait and see but instead of Apple leading innovation, it now feels like they’re in a position of having to respond to what others are doing.

I’ll be stunned if Apple doesn’t have it’s Echo alternative because that’s a product that seems to need to exist or they risk ceding being the center of the house to Google and Amazon. But I’m not convinced Apple saw this coming and will have something ready to announce in a few weeks. But they need it.

Overall, Google impressed me a lot at the keynote. That said, Google has some history it has to live down, and that’s it’s tendency to abandon and kill products (like Reader) or simply let them stagnate and ignore once they stop being the new hot toy (Plus, Voice, maybe Hangouts); it makes it hard to necessarily adopt what they do because you don’t know if you’re coming to depend on something that’s going to go become Google Photos (great, innovating and with a lot of energy) or Google Wave (dead). So for me, trust of commitment is the biggest problem Google needs to overcome for their products to succeed.

Also of Interest