Google played it safe today, and the tech industry is a little worse for it


sergey brin skydiving

Google+, Sergey Brin

Google cofounder Sergey Brin.

Remember when Google was cutting-edge and cool and a little bit weird?


Like in 2013, when CEO Larry Page came out on stage at the company's Google I/O conference and imagined a fantasy world where Google could test out new ideas free from meddlesome regulation?

Or in 2012, when cofounder Sergey Brin came out wearing this new contraption on his face and suddenly there was video of a bunch of skydivers wearing cameras on their head, and they landed on the roof of the venue where the event was taking place and biked and ran downstairs into the auditorium and through the audience?

Or the self-driving cars? Or Project Loon, the magic internet-delivering balloons? Or Google Fiber, which is meant to do for broadband speeds what Gmail did for online email back in 2004?

There were no shocks like that on stage Thursday at the 2015 incarnation of Google I/O.


Under the leadership of senior product chief Sundar Pichai - Page, Brin, and executive chairman Eric Schmidt were nowhere to be seen - Google played it safe. While that's probably the right thing for the company, it's a little bit of a shame for the tech industry overall.

This conference is for software developers, but it's also Google's highest-profile event of the year, where it places its tech leadership stake in the ground for the next year.

But this year, it was mostly about important but little improvements to existing products.

You had the next version of Android, code-named Android M - no dessert name mentioned! - which has some interesting features in it.

Most important will be Google On Tap, which is Google's next step toward creating the perfect personal assistant, a task which it started a few years ago with Google Now.


But it's a little premature to get too excited about Android M when the version announced last year, Android Lollipop, is still only on about 10% of all Android phones.

google io photos


Google's big vision for 2015: better selfies.

There were some other nice little things. Google Photos is a new app that takes the best parts of the photo functionality from the oft-maligned Google+ social network and puts them in its own package, complete with free unlimited storage. (That "race to zero" in online storage is reaching the finish line, and any company trying to build a business based on charging for storage is dreaming.)

There were a few incremental announcements related to mobile ads which could be very important to Google's actual business - it still makes about 90% of its money through advertising - but won't mean much to most Google users.

But perhaps the most telling part of the presentation was Google's answer to the virtual reality fever that every other tech company seems to have caught.


Facebook and its partners like Valve blow our mind with realistic 3D video games graphics on the Oculus platform, and sure the hardware will cost $1,500 to start, but what a vision!

Microsoft presented its first "wow" product in years in January, with the HoloLens glasses, which superimpose computer-generated images in the real world.

google cardboard selfie

Matt Weinberger

Google Cardboard. Now with more cardboard.

Google's answer? An update to Cardboard -- a set of virtual-reality goggles made out of, yes, cardboard, where you use your own smartphone to present the actual visuals. It was first presented at last year's I/O as seemingly some kind of joke.

This year's version is bigger so it'll fit bigger phones.

Instead of rolling out some snazzy new hardware with accompanying demos, Google is focusing on the content and software side of virtual reality - it teamed up with GoPro for a new complicated camera that will let people film 360-degree scenes, then created software to turn those scenes into videos that can be displayed on YouTube.


Very hard to do. Very important - without virtual reality content, there will be no virtual reality.

But not very exciting.

To some degree, Google is in a trap of its own making. For years, it told everybody about the long-distance moonshots it was working on with a sort of geeky engineer's pride. But when experiments like Google Glass failed to live up to expectations, the rest of the tech world snarked and criticized and laughed.

So whatever Larry, Sergey, and the rest of the secret teams of Google geniuses are working on now, we probably won't hear about them until they're more polished and closer to being finished.

In the meantime, Apple's big developer conference happens in a couple weeks on June 8. The ball's in your court, Tim Cook.