Google's New Android Plan: World Domination

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Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP

Attendees await the morning keynote speech at the Google IO Developers Conference in San Francisco on May 11

The ballroom on the third floor of San Francisco's Moscone West convention center doesn't look like anything special. But in recent years this nondescript hall has become the source of major news about smart phones, tablets and other cutting-edge mobile gizmos. Apple and Google use it for the keynote addresses that are the signature events of their developer conferences. As the two most significant companies in the mobile-software business, they're doing much of the heavy lifting in determining where the industry is going, and the rivalry between Apple's iOS and Google's Android is as fierce as any tech face-off I can recall.

This week it was Google's turn to fill the room with geeks and attempt to dazzle them . The company's I/O conference actually featured two keynotes. The first, on Tuesday morning, packed its 51 minutes to the bursting point with Android-related developments. (The second, on Wednesday, was devoted to Google's Chrome browser and its operating-system offshoot, Chrome OS.)

As usual with both Google and Apple keynotes, the first few minutes of the Androidfest were devoted to impressive numbers with lots of zeroes at the end: 100 million Android devices have been activated since the operating system's debut in late 2008 — mostly phones plus a smattering of tablets and other items — and 400,000 new ones are activated every day. Thirty-six manufacturers offer 310 Android products. The Android Market has 200,000 apps, which have been downloaded a total of 4.5 billion times. This operating system, in short, is a big, fat success.

Steve Jobs' company still plays a role at the event as unofficial bogeyman/whipping boy: at this year's Android keynote, a giant projected image of Android's robotic green mascot chomping into an apple was greeted with thunderous applause. But Android has come a long way since last year's I|O conference, when it very much stood in Apple's shadow.

True, it's still playing catch-up with iOS on some fronts. For instance, Apple has long made a thriving business out of selling movies, music and TV shows to iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad owners; Google, by contrast, hasn't done anything to help Android fans acquire and manage media. That changed this week with the announcement of a new service called Google Music Beta and the availability of movie rentals in the Android Market. But it didn't change all that much: rather than letting you buy music, Music Beta just lets you upload songs you've acquired elsewhere to Google's servers, so they're available on your Android phone or tablet. And the movie store feels unfinished. You can rent but not buy, there are no TV episodes, and I found the whole experience glitchy in a way that Apple services almost never are.

(Within the next few months, incidentally, Apple is widely expected to announce features that let iOS-device owners store media in the cloud, similar to Google's new offerings. Then again, everybody's been expecting Apple to do that for eons, so I'll believe it when Steve Jobs says it's so.)

As it happens, most of the interesting news at the Android keynote didn't involve short-term stuff — it was about a plan for Android that's in some ways even more wildly ambitious than Apple's own wildly ambitious plans for iOS. Google announced that it intends to help hardware makers develop add-ons that will work with any Android device, including game controllers, keyboards and even surprises like the exercise bike it demoed onstage. Google also unveiled an initiative, Android@Home, to let Android power home-automation systems that can do everything from play music to turn lights on and off. And it shared plans for an upgrade — code-named Ice Cream Sandwich — designed to work on phones, tablets, TV boxes and every other sort of device that might conceivably run Android. (At the moment, the current version of Android for phones is 2.3 Gingerbread, and the current one for tablets is 3.0 Honeycomb.)

In nearly every case, details on these developments — like when products will be available and how much they'll cost — were few; the keynote often felt like a series of announcements about announcements yet to come. It wasn't even clear at times where reality left off and fantasy began. At one point, a Google exec began tapping an Android@Home box with CDs, whereupon the music they contained magically started to play. Near-field communications, the technology that could make this possible, is here today. But Google didn't explain whether it intends to strike deals with music companies to embed NFC chips in jewel cases.

I also hungered for more information on another bit of news that could turn out to be huge: Google is working with hardware makers and wireless carriers to simplify the seemingly infinite, often outdated collection of Android variants used by different devices. So many versions of the software are in circulation that it can be tough to tell whether a given gadget has every feature and will work with every third-party app, or if it will ever be upgraded so it will.

Here again, the promises were vague. Google said the goal is to make sure that Android devices are compatible with new versions of the software for 18 months after release but didn't say whether they'll get those updates in a timely fashion. Still, the very fact that the company acknowledged the desirability of reducing Android's complexity was encouraging. Until now, it's tended to reject the idea that fragmentation of the operating system existed at all — and you can't solve a problem if you're busy denying that it exists.

The downside of Android's current, fractured nature was neatly demonstrated when Google, in an Oprah-like gesture, doled out free tablets to all 5,000 conference attendees — namely Samsung's Galaxy Tab 10.1, an Android model that won't go on sale to mere civilians for another month. From a hardware standpoint, the Tab is the first Android tablet to compete with the ultrathin good looks of Apple's iPad 2. (When I put a review unit down at home and came back later, I was momentarily confused over whether it was the Tab or the iPad 2 until I flipped it over and saw the Samsung logo.) But the units that I/O attendees received run Android 3.0, not the latest version, Android 3.1, which Google announced Tuesday and immediately pushed out as an update for owners of Motorola's Xoom. The company says the Tabs will get 3.1 within a couple of weeks, but for now these unreleased devices feel like loaves of day-old bread.

Google's Android keynote was so dense, so sketchy, and so far-reaching that even preliminary conclusions about its full impact are months away. By then, I'll have returned to Moscone West for WWDC, Apple's developer conference, which starts on June 6. Apple being Apple, it's done an outstanding job of keeping its plans for iOS 5 secret. But this we already know: when it discloses them next month, the mobile world will change once again.

McCracken blogs about personal technology at Technologizer, which he founded in 2008 after nearly two decades as a tech journalist; on Twitter, he's @harrymccracken. His column, also called Technologizer, appears every Thursday on