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Why Google I/O announcements are a big deal

Sahil Mohan Gupta
Sahil Mohan GuptaMay 20, 2016 | 16:28

Why Google I/O announcements are a big deal

If ever there was any doubt that Alphabet’s golden goose Google was misfiring, then Google I/O which happened on Wednesday (May 18) evening was proof that Google’s is not just firing on all cylinders, but under its new CEO Sundar Pichai, it is flexing its muscles, which is an ominous sign for the likes of Apple, Microsoft and Facebook.

Google’s announcements at its annual developer conference may not have the marketing spin of an Apple keynote, but they are a huge deal. The event outlined Pichai’s vision of the type of company he wants Google to be. Some of the announcements could possibly mark a tectonic shift in way most people interact with their gadgets.

The Assistant

The launch of Google Assistant was an obvious announcement. It was the first thing that Pichai announced, but was a long time coming. Of all the tech giants, Google’s machine-learning/artificial intelligence (AI) is the most advanced. The Google Assistant, which may merely sound like a big update of the Google Now Assistant that most Android users love, is actually a lot more. It is Google’s answer to Microsoft’s Bots, Facebook’s chat bots and even what AI start-up Viv is doing, something about which I wrote recently.

The Google Assistant is now conversational just the way Siri and Cortana have been for years. But this conversational assistant just doesn’t have the smartness of Google Now Assistant. Google has taken things to the next level. It can handle complex queries and also understand the context of the query just like Viv and can carry forward a conversation through multiple queries.

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Google CEO Sundar Pichai delivers his keynote address during the Google I/O 2016 developers conference in Mountain View, California. 

It also marries the information that the Google search knowledge graph has crawled with the advanced speech recognition technology that Google has developed over the last ten years.

I expect Google to not only maintain a lead in this space, but also pull further ahead of Microsoft and Apple. Google has been the best in this type of technology for a long time and there is no reason why it would suddenly fall behind. All the evidence presented during the I/O keynote points towards a leapfrog in terms of what a voice-enabled Assistant can do.

Allo

The Assistant is so important that it has been weaved into a new chat application called Allo. Allo derives its smartness from Google Assistant which resides within the app acting like a chat bot with which you can have conversations.

Allo on its own is also quite unique. It has a clean chat interface like many chat apps like WhatsApp, Snapchat and Google’s own Hangouts, but it comes with its own bag of tricks. There’s a feature called "Whisper Shout" which enables users to press and hold the "send message" button and control the intensity of the message, eliminating the need for messages to be sent in capital letters.

Moreover, with Assistant weaved into it, the app understands the context of a message. It understands if a shared photo has a dog or a baby and accordingly, the app presents reply options. It has Google Search built-in, so users don’t need to leave the app.

Google says it supports self-destructing messages like Snapchat, an incognito mode which is fully encrypted like WhatsApp and also a standard mode in which the information is "transient" when it reaches Google’s servers. This is also there for the assistant to understand what the context is, after which Google claims it destroys the information.

Lastly, to allay privacy issues, Google is tying the app to a mobile number than a Google account, which will ease a lot of nerves.

Duo

Similar to Allo, Google has also announced a new video call app called Duo, which is modelled more on the lines of Apple’s FaceTime. It again is tied to a mobile number than a Google account. It also comes with a unique new feature called "Knock Knock" which enables the user to see what the caller is doing before answering the call just like one would peep through a door before opening the gate. It is cute and simple to use unlike Google's previous offerings, which could pose a threat to Microsoft's Skype, Apple's FaceTime and Facebook's messenger.

Google Home

Google Home is another product in which the Mountain View, California-based company has weaved the Assistant in. Google Home is its long-awaited answer to Amazon’s Echo speaker which comes with Alexa assistant. It is a tiny speaker which leverages Google’s advances in speech recognition and search allowing users to get work done through voice. Essentially, it is a smart speaker which can understand the questions of its user and answer them because Google is at its heart. It is also built using the Google Cast standard, which means that it can push content to any Google Cast compatible device, which makes it a more alluring play in terms of creating a dent in the ecosystem.

Moreover, it is a tiny little speaker, which can quietly integrate in any household environment. This is Google's first foray into home automation and internet of things (IoT) under its own umbrella. This could mark a big change in the way people use their gadgets if the product has the desired effect.

Android Daydream

While Google had already announced Android N and released a very early alpha preview of the operating system, it had not revealed how it would play a key role in cracking open the virtual reality (VR) market and dominate the nascent market. Android Daydream serves that purpose. Daydream is a platform architecture that's built on the basis of Android N and it will be a facilitator for a slew of apps, a VR interface and framework and Google's own suite of apps. Google already has the likes of EA developing games for Android Daydream, which says that Google is really serious about this effort.

Google has also come up with basic specifications for Android Daydream-based devices and announced an armada of top-tier Android smartphone makers who are developing products on the basis of the platform. Google has also come up with a headset and controller which will work with Daydream-based devices.

The interesting part is that Android Daydream has been designed to be a mainstream VR experience than being a premium VR experience like a HTC Vive or Oculus Rift from Facebook. This would mean that the sheer scale of Android could possibly propel it to being the dominant VR platform in a matter of months.

But I am just scratching the surface here. Google has announced instant apps for Android, which would be instantly downloaded on the phone. It has announced enhancements to the Android N which give devices based on the OS a massive performance boost and better battery life.

Pichai’s Google on Wednesday, metaphorically speaking, unveiled a 12-barrel shotgun, to the knife fight Facebook and Microsoft are waging against it.

Last updated: May 22, 2016 | 20:27
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