There’s more pressure than usual on Google to deliver surprises at I/O 2022. The company is expected to unveil its Pixel Watch, along with a more budget-friendly Pixel 6A, plus the latest range of new Android 13 software and new features. Who knows? Maybe we’ll see something completely different.
As always, there’s a lot at stake that the new stuff is good, and I don’t really doubt Google’s ability to impress with these new products. It’s rare that Google doesn’t have at least a handful of announcements (including a few pie-in-the-sky) that display extremely well. After all, what makes I/O fun to watch is that it’s a mix of the technology that’s at your fingertips, along with some more distant stuff.
But what some of us do? The edge are most excited for couldn’t sound duller in comparison. Rather than being surprised, we just want to see if 2022 is the year Google figures out how its products can be relevant to real people for the long term. Releasing it is step one, but providing meaningful, long-term support behind these new products and the platforms they work on is something Google has still failed to do after all these years. I’m not just talking about ensuring security and OS updates – the boring stuff. I want Google to commit to these gadgets and ideas like it has more to lose than couch cushion money.
Follow-through has never been Google’s forte. Many of its products have languished in a way that lends even more credibility to Google’s notorious reputation for giving up even its best ideas. There have been so many high profile I/O announcements that looked great but failed to live up to their potential, such as Google’s Assistant-powered Duplex service that can answer or place calls for you, which is slow to gain traction, even with people who could use it best. Then there are the ones that just never materialized, like the ambitious Project Starline that Google claimed could provide a more realistic video chat experience, with depth sensors to make it seem like the other person is sitting on the other side of the table.
Looking back at 2021, it failed to live up to the buzz it made about its marquee products. The Stadia cloud game streaming platform was drastically scaled back in less than two years after Google became the first tech giant to go big with game streaming. Android 12 has brought disappointing changes and the rollout of the Material You design widget has been mediocre at best (it should be called Meh-terial you). The Pixel 6 had a buggy launch, which still hasn’t been fixed with valuable updates. These were the phones that were supposed to signal people “okay, now we’re serious,” proving the value of Google’s custom Tensor processors. My Pixel 6 is really no more fun to use than my old Pixel 3.
The lack of concern after Google’s launch has taken various forms. My colleague Allison Johnson thought the Pixel 5A was a safe but great mid-range phone that more people should know about. But instead of going global with broad carrier support, as most manufacturers today do with phones they’re excited about, Google released the phone exclusively in the US and Japan and didn’t partner with carriers to increase availability. . Unless you’re a Pixel super fan, the existence of this phone may have gone completely under your radar.
Given that approach, it seems like Google wants to succeed with hardware on its own terms — as well as fail on its own terms. Perhaps this strategy stems from the fact that Google realizes that it will probably never come first for many tech hardware categories it participates in. Still, it’s strange to see this seemingly directionless strategy, given that there’s evidence within Google’s business (Google Photos, Search, Chrome, Android, and Workspace, to name a few) that investing is very successful.
If you want a representative example to watch out for, it’s smartwatches. If the biggest pre-I/O rumors are true, Google will unveil its first-ever flagship smartwatch, the Pixel Watch. It’s an exciting time for the device to launch, as the bar couldn’t be lower for Google to re-enter the smartwatch market after years of evaporating. And I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if Google hadn’t left in the first place. It was yet another category that Google initially put some effort into – until it didn’t.
Google launched a dedicated smartwatch platform, Android Wear, in 2014 to compete with the Apple Watch. The company got Samsung, LG, Asus, Motorola and more on board to make hardware, each with an interesting twist on design, but each kind of lame with the same ho-hum software, sluggish performance and poor battery life. Android Wear offered more options than Apple, but all those options were, well, no good.
Google continued its software investment in the space and released a rebranded Wear OS with more features to break new ground. But the best watches running Google’s new software couldn’t shake those first-generation problems — not even those of the LG Watch Style and Sport, the flagships meant to take Wear OS to new heights.
Google’s support slowed, with fewer major updates and even fewer must-have apps. While a few manufacturers like Fossil and Mobvoi have lit the proverbial torch (and more recently Samsung with its Wear OS 3-powered Galaxy Watch 4), the platform isn’t in a great place. So there’s a ton of Google to kickstart it — again. But even if the company unveils a promising new product, it’s possible that Google’s greatest chance at success with smartwatches lies behind it, as nearly all of its OEM partners (except Samsung) have given up. Still, I hope Google offers a similar amount of support for the Pixel Watch as it does for its Pixel phones, for whatever that’s worth.
Regardless of the product, be it hardware or software, this year’s announcements at I/O offer Google a chance to start over. That is the best and The worst thing about Google’s strategy: it can’t stop starting over. Despite some ever-present luminaries in its strategy, such as Android, its search activity and Google Assistant, there is little to no logical continuity with its hardware and software. It’s often exciting to see what the company does next, but I’ve learned to question Google’s ability to care about its latest products six months (or even six weeks) after launch. I want to be proven wrong.
At I/O, we will see the new products take over the stage. But I’m curious if Google recognizes that the initial impact of these gadgets matters less than the long-term support.