Google I/O is latest round in escalating high-tech arms race

Jon Swartz, Jessica Guynn and Marco della Cava
May 28, 2015

SAN FRANCISCO — Google fired the latest salvos Thursday in an escalating arms race among tech’s Big 4 for the hearts, minds and coding of developers.

At the eighth annual I/O conference here, Google laid out a futuristic road map to throngs of 5,000 software developers, its infantry in the war against Apple, Facebook and Microsoft.

The tech titans are locked in a worldwide skirmish to make devices of all kinds smarter — whether smartphones and tablets, wearable devices, Internet-connected televisions, cars or virtual reality.

With most people on the planet within an arm’s length of an electronic device, the quartet is vying to become the primary vendor supplying technology underpinning five key battlefields — the Internet of Things, autos, virtual reality, mobile payments and wearable devices – worth hundreds of billions of dollars.

The I/O conference, which kicked off this morning with a two-hour-plus keynote, was a fire hose of hardware and software candy for developers. Among the goodies:

— Mobile payments. Android Pay, the company’s answer to Apple Pay, lets users make purchases with their connected devices, as payments generally shift away from cash and even plastic and towards secure mobile options. Facebook and Microsoft are in hot pursuit of mobile payments, as well.

— Autos. Cars from automakers such as Audi and GM were on display at I/O showcasing Android Auto, hammering home the point that car manufacturers today sell their models more on their interconnectivity than their horsepower. Apple and Microsoft, too, have been especially aggressive.

— Android Wear. With Apple Watch capturing most of the wearable spotlight these days, Google was keen to point out that some 3,500 apps are now available for a range of smartwatches powered by Android.

— Internet of Things. Google’s interest in the category is anchored to its purchase last year of Nest, the thermostat and smoke detector company. It was buttressed Thursday with the announcement of Brillo and Weave, new Internet of Thing protocols aimed at making it easier for developers of connected devices to have their gadgets work seamlessly together.

Apple and Microsoft have long pursued this market, with Samsung Electronics making a big push of late.

— Virtual reality. In what just might be the biggest “wow” of the keynote, Google unveiled an upgraded Cardboard project that intends to bring virtual reality to the masses. Google is teaming with camera company GoPro, which built a special 16-camera array that allows anyone to film a spherical video. Google said its new Jump video will be available on YouTube, starting in July.

Microsoft and Facebook this year made eye-popping inroads with HoloLens and Oculus, respectively.

I/O is a chance for the Internet giant to showcase its latest innovations and enlist software developers to work on its Android software, which commands 78% of its market, compared to 18% for iOS, in the first quarter of 2015, according to researcher IDC. There are more than 1 billion smartphones worldwide.

Android helps Google make more money from its search engine and other services such as maps which are usually built into the devices. That drives more visitors to Google and gives the company more opportunities to sell ads.

“This was really all about Android, where previous I/O keynotes were all over the place — Glass, self-driving cars,” says Holger Mueller, principal analyst at Constellation Research. “It was badly needed. Intuitive usability is the key reason Apple users stay with iOS.”

Developers are increasingly important in Google’s competition with Apple. They make devices powered by the company’s Android software more appealing to consumers. Apple’s dueling conference for software developers takes place in San Francisco on June 8. Facebook and Microsoft held their developers’ conferences earlier this year, also in San Francisco.

Analysts say Google will have to prove that it can attract consumers to new platforms after pulling Google Glass and mixed results for devices that run Android Wear.

“(Intelligent personal assistant) Google Now and Photos reflect a true breakthrough in artificial intelligence and deep learning,” says Mark Hung, an analyst at Gartner. “The use of contextual information was impressive.”

For today, at least, Google made its case for developers with a barrage of products and services.

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