Search Plus Your World

It’s no secret that Google has come a long way since Larry Page and Sergey Brin built their first server in a  Lego case . The company has evolved from search and ads to email, mobile phones, and a stable of product offerings and research initiatives in its continuing mission to organize the world’s information. While software could take the company very far, hardware efforts, in addition to those solely for internal use, like servers, have recently gained more focus. The physical world is the next domain for Google to explore: Nexus phones and tablets,  Chromebooks , set-top boxes running GoogleTV (encouraged though not built by Google), Glass, fiber optic cable, and of course, self-driving cars.

It is possible to imagine a life fully contained with the Googleverse. Or at the very least, constantly connected to the Mountain View company via an array of intelligent devices. But what if Google decided to take their grand experiments one step further. What if Google built a city?

Anyone who grew up playing Sim City fondly remembers the  arcologies – stand-alone “cities within a city” – but this isn’t what I have in mind. Not a closed off Googleverse, but a town built from the ground (or fiber) up. A testbed for Google operations and a home for those who want to live on the cutting edge. My model is  Celebration, Florida , a town originally developed by Disney.

  Celebration is a planned city. Rather than growing organically as people move to an area, a planned city is designed and built and then the city exists, fully formed. While Disney did not continue to run the entire project, divesting itself of most operations after Celebration “opened” it had a hand in the design and creation which has lasted past the period of formal operating authority.

Network Effect

A Google city would start with the newest publicly available Google product:  Google Fiber . Fiber is one of Google’s most ambitious products yet, and, given the company’s history, that’s saying something. At its heart, Fiber is nothing more than Google acting as an ISP, but when an ISP can offer speeds of  700 Mbps  for just $70 dollars a month, it’s an ISP making history. The first cities to be blessed with the assault on the cable companies were Kansas City, Kansas and Kansas City, Missouri, with neighboring cities in the area on the  shortlist  for coverage. And Eric Schmidt says there will be  more to come.

Unsurprisingly, this has made some entrepreneurs think “Why not Kansas City?” as they look for places to found and grow businesses, particularly internet startups that can take advantage of a resource not available in many other places in North America. Kansas City (either) may not be Silicon Valley, but getting in on the ground floor for Google Fiber could give the region a  boost  while we wait to see just how interested Google really is in laying cable. At the very least Google Fiber is an interesting hook: a hacker house wired up with Fiber is on  airbnb.

More than just providing internet access and television channels, Google is changing the way their customers  interact  with the living room by including a Nexus 7 as the remote control, the ability to record up to eight shows at a time, and a combined three terabytes of storage – two locally for your content, one in the cloud for Google Drive and the services (formerly Google Docs) contained in that.

And who wouldn’t want to jump ship to a Google-run  wireless carrierConsumer Reports  just ranked AT&T the worst of the big boys, but first place Verizon is not without it’s faults: blocking  Google Wallet  and pushing out software updates  slowly . Working with Dish could provide over the air access to match Google’s terrestrial infrastructure. Though a complete rollout of cellular services would likely be several years in the making, just as with the Kansas City fiber project, even a small scale cellular service would be a shot across the bow at both AT&T and Verizon.

Transportation

In a Google city, you may not need a car. At least, not as you currently do. Moving to Google, USA could mean subscribing to the Google Car service, built on Google’s  self-driving car  project. Think of this as ZipCar on steroids. As part of local taxes/fees etc. residents would pay into a car sharing service. Getting a car to drive to your location would be as simple as opening an app similar to Uber or Hailo. These vehicles might resemble pods more than sedans (think the pods on the villain’s island in The Incredibles) because the purpose would be transportation more than “driving.” Just use your trusty mobile phone or tablet to summon a pod and one will arrive to pick you up, drop you off at your destination, and pick you up later on. Maybe it could swing by the laundromat, your Amazon (or Google) locker, or a pizza place on the way and do some of your errands too.

Maybe everyone would bring their own car (or just purchase a private pod) that could be outfitted with self-drive, but there is opportunity for a unique public transit system powered by the self-driving car technology. Anyone who owns a self-driving car would have much the same experience as the transit method and those who own a “traditional” car would still be able to take advantage of the transit system.

Eye on Life

The gadget that really ties this futuristic city together may not be the cars, bandwidth, or omnipresent internet connectivity, but  Google Glass . Ideally, Glass will be drawing on the voice recognition and suggestion capabilities of Google Now, location information from Google Maps, object (and facial?) recognition to identify places and things within your field of vision, and a host of other Google services. Right now, much of what Glass will be capable of if it finds its way into the hands of consumers in the not-too-distant-future (2014? 2015?) is a mystery. If it can provide a quarter of the functionality of the  concept video , there’s no telling what kind of impact smart glasses could have on society.

City on the Edge of Forever

With a reputation for undertaking projects well outside the box, Google City may not be as improbable as it sounds, but give the Googlers a few more years and every city may end up  looking like Google City anyway. Unlike the Segway, cities may actually be redesigned: roads can be altered for self-driving cars, and billboards can be physically removed to be displayed virtually to those wearing smart glasses. 

Thoughts from Google I/O or a Three Day Tour

Last month I set out on a trip to California to visit with family, investigate working on the Left Coast, and attend Google I/O. I/O (Input/Output) is Google’s annual developer conference and their stage to announce products, strategy, and outlook for the year to come. I/O has been home to the unveiling of several big efforts by Google over the years: Google Wave, Google Music, Google TV, and less known but nonetheless interesting developments like Android @ Home,a home automation project using Android OS and Arduino processors. 

This year was no different. From a product standpoint the Google Nexus 7 tablet, Nexus Q, Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, and the continued evolution and integration of Google+ into their overall family of services, the conference gave developers and consumers a good look at what Google will emphasize over the next twelve months. 

Plus skydiving with Google Glass.

Aside from the whimsy and excitement, there were a lot of telling moves and advancements coming out of the conference. Android will continue to play an ever larger role in the way people interact with Google. One of the potentially most transformational announcements though, while not directly Android related, is the continuing Google+ strategy coming into focus.

Timeline

For the last year or so, Facebook’s biggest feature rollout has been the move from the traditional profile to the Timeline, both for personal and brand accounts. Like many of Facebook’s advancements, Timeline caused a panic. For some, Timeline is a whimsical look through the past, chronicling a user’s Facebook history along, what else, a time line. Facebook users and visiters to their pofile alike can scroll through a running chronology of status updates, photos, and more. But what really makes Timeline compelling, for those who don’t mind the stalker aspect, is the ability of a user to fill their in their profile for events that didn’t happen on Facebook or happened before Facebook existed. My Timeline begins in the fall of 2004, but if I chose to do so, could be expanded back to the day I was born.

On this last part, as people/investors worry about Facebook’s ability to generate profits, making the Timeline a pathway to baby books or photo albums, physical or electronic – it doesn’t matter – just in a format that can survive should Facebook shutdown or decide to end Timeline for “the next big thing.” Facebook is in the position to make a really compelling real-life version of the dream advertised in Google’s Dear Sophie video.

One of the announcements about the future of Google+ was, in my opinion, the foundation for Timeline done right: history. History is a private collection of “moments” which can be written to your account by third party apps through an API. Google+ users are already familiar with this feature in its initial form, Instant Upload. Instant Upload sends pictures taken on your smartphone to a private photo gallery connected to your Google+ account, automatically. 

Moments restores sharing power to the user and does away with the concept of frictionless sharing. What’s nice is that someone can use the latest social apps all the time, but only share certain pieces of information. This can be for privacy or simplicity. I am a big fan of Instant Upload because I don’t have to go through all my photos and select which ones to upload, which to keep on the phone, which to post etc. Like a Dropbox folder, my photo gallery is the same on my phone and in the cloud. I can share from either device, but I don’t need to make anything public. 

Someone could create a personal implementation of Path using the Google+ history API and an artful presentation of moments. Even if Google were to shut down Google+, the data is in your Google account, it isn’t something that will cease to exist. If Path gets acquired, the creators get bored, or whatever scenario you can imagine occurs, will user be able to export their journeys? Unlikely. at least, not in a human usable format. This isn’t a shot at Path, but the social network built around chronicling your day is a good comparison to the sort of experience that Google+ moments could allow.

Glass

Project Glass aka Google Glass, the smart headware being developed by Google made as big a non-release debut as possible during I/O. 

There were Google employees with (inactive) units on their heads and the previously mentioned skydiving stunt. 

A large section of wall, and several display counters were devoted to taking developer pre-orders (and a few basic, questions), a commitment to pay $1500 dollars at some time in 2013 for a developer version of the futuristic eyewear. While the sight of Glass upon the heads of Googlers, and the skydiving, and a few heart-tugging videos of babies smiling at their mother, rather than a camera, make Glass appear on the horizon, this is a device that can’t quite be called a product yet. It rises above the level of vaporware solely because Google has the muscle and vision to make the dream a reality.

While Googlers could reveal bits and pieces of their experience, for instance, Glass can be worn with a baseball hat, little is known about the interface, operation, hardware, software…etc. Episode 153 of TWiG (This Week in Google) boils down what Google is willing to share about Glass into an episode title “Did I Mention it Takes Pictures?” 

The technology displayed in the initial concept video is still a ways off, but this is the technology to watch over the next few years. For the curious, the song is “lover’s carvings” by Biblio. Ironically, it is not available in the Play Store. But licensing and copyright issues are a matter for another time.

Google Now is the first step in a radical shift for the search engine: giving people what they want before they know they want it based on their search and travel history, and probably lies at the core of Glass. Google Now is a Siri competitor as well as a look into the future of search, powered by intelligence and location awareness. 

Nexus 7

This is the most practical, most ambitious, and potentially most profitable consumer product Google has launched in a while (disclaimer: as a Google I/O attendee, I received a Nexus 7). 

The Nexus 7 is a seven inch tablet running the latest version of the Android OS, 4.1 Jelly Bean. It’s loaded with processing power, unlike many previous Android devices, is light in the hand, easy to read, and fully integrated into the Google Play Store. Essentially, the device is a Google-centric version of the Kindle Fire. Ideally, all the content downloaded to the Nexus 7 – apps, movies and TV, books and magazines, and music will be purchased from the Play Store, with Google getting a cut of each sale. 

Over the next year Google will try to change our perception of the company. Not just a search engine, but a smart guide. The Play Store, Google Now, and Nexus devices form a continuum of information, media, and suggested knowledge. In another year, the next Nexus device may be a Google version of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy capable of directing, informing, and entertaining.