Schlagwort-Archive: google+

Google Hits a Samsung Roadblock With New AI Assistant – Viv & Adam Cheyer

Google just debuted a digital assistant, which it hopes to place inside smartphones, watches, cars and every other imaginable internet-connected device. It’s already hit a snag.

The Alphabet division launched new smartphones last week with the artificially intelligent assistant deeply embedded. It also rolled out a speaker with the feature at its core and announced plans to let other companies tie their apps and services to the assistant.

A day later, Samsung, which just announced it was ending production of its problematic Galaxy Note 7 smartphones, said it was acquiring Viv Labs, a startup building its own AI voice-based assistant.

At first, the deal looked like a counter-punch to Samsung rival Apple — Viv is run by the creators of Apple’s Siri assistant. But buying Viv may be more of a problem for Google, because Samsung is the biggest maker of phones running Google’s Android mobile operating system.

Google strategy is now centered on the assistant, rather than its search engine, because it’s a more natural way for people to interact with smartphones and other connected devices. Getting all Android phone makers to put the Google assistant on their devices would get the technology into millions of hands quickly. But Samsung’s Viv deal suggests assistants are too important for phone makers to let other companies supply this feature.

Last week, despite the Note 7 crisis, Samsung executive Injong Rhee said the company plans to put Viv’s technology in its smartphones next year and then embed it into other electronics and home appliances. A Samsung representative and a Google spokeswoman declined to comment.

That’s a necessity for Samsung, according to some analysts and industry insiders.

„As AI is becoming more sophisticated and valuable to the consumer, there’s no question it will be important for hardware companies,“ said Kirt McMaster, executive chairman of Cyanogen, a startup that makes Android software. Mr. McMaster, a frequent Google critic, said other Android handset makers will likely follow Samsung’s move.

„If you don’t have an AI asset, you’re not going to have a brain,“ he added.

Google may already have known that some Android phone makers — known as original equipment manufacturers, or OEMs — were reluctant to embrace its assistant.

„Other OEMs may want to differentiate“ Google’s Android chief Hiroshi Lockheimer told Bloomberg before it released its own smartphones. „They may want to do their own thing — their own assistant, for example.“

Samsung and Google have sparred in the past over distribution. Google requires Android handset makers to pre-install 11 apps, yet Samsung often puts its own services on its phones. And the South Korean company has released devices that run on its own operating system, called Tizen, not Android.

Viv was frequently on the short-list of startups that could help larger tech companies build assistant technology. Founded four-years ago by Dag Kittlaus, Adam Cheyer and Chris Brigham, the startup was working on voice technology to handle more complex queries than existing offerings.

While it drummed up considerable attention and investment, Viv has not yet released its product to the public. And some analysts are skeptical of Samsung’s ability to convert the technology into a credible service, given its mixed record with software applications.

„It will be very hard to compete with Google’s strength in data and their AI acquisitions,“ said Jitendra Waral, senior analyst with Bloomberg Intelligence. „Samsung would need to prove that its AI solutions are superior to that of Google’s. They are handicapped in this race.“

Samsung is also focused on handling the fallout from its exploding Galaxy Note 7 phones, potentially taking management time away from its Viv integration.

But it’s a race Samsung has to join. In recent years, Samsung acquired mobile-payments and connected-device startups to keep up with Apple, Google and Amazon. Digital voice-based assistants may be more important, if they become the main way people interact with devices.

Silicon Valley titans are rushing into the space because of this potential. Amazon is trying to sign up developers for its Alexa voice technology. Apple has recently touted more Siri capabilities and opened the technology to other developers. And now Google, considered the leader in artificial intelligence, is making its own push.

„I don’t ever remember a time when every single major consumer tech company — and even enterprise companies — have been singularly focused on an identical strategy,“ said Tim Tuttle, chief executive officer of MindMeld Inc., a startup working on voice interaction software. „They’re all following the exact same playbook.“


Google hired writers from Pixar and The Onion to make Assistant more personable

Google wants its Assistant to be more than just an order-taking robot — so it hired some clever writers from outside the company to help make it happen.

A new story from the Wall Street Journal’s Christopher Mims details the advancements of different artificial intelligence devices like Amazon Echo and Google’s rival product Home, and how they’re comforting for those who live alone thanks to how personable the AI’s have become.

For Google, that friendly personality is thanks to a team of writers from Pixar and The Onion who helped make the Assistant — which powers Google’s Home device — sound more like a human and less like a robot, according to the Journal. Google’s eventual goal is to help users build an emotional connection with the Assistant, the Journal reports.

Google unveiled its Assistant-enabled Home device last week, a direct competitor to other AI-powered hardware devices like Amazon’s Echo. The Assistant itself is similar to Alexa, which powers the Echo: It has voice-recognition software, natural language recognition, and it gets smarter over time.

You can ask the Assistant to tell you a joke, give you the weather or set a timer, but you can also ask it to do things like remember your favorite sports team or the city you live in. Much like other AI — like Alexa or Apple’s Siri — the Assistant can be equal parts sweet and sassy, which is what helps it seem more relatable and more human. The Assistant lives inside Google Home, but it’s also enabled in Google’s new messaging app, Allo and its new Pixel smartphone.

A High-Stakes Bet: Turning Google Assistant Into a ‘Star Trek’ Computer

Google’s new assistant will be incorporated in new products like Google Home, an Amazon Echo-like talking computer. CreditJustin Sullivan/Getty Images

Google is one of the most valuable companies in the world, but its future, like that of all tech giants, is clouded by a looming threat. The search company makes virtually all of its money from ads placed on the World Wide Web. But what happens to the cash machine if web search eventually becomes outmoded?

That worry isn’t far-fetched. More of the world’s computing time keeps shifting to smartphones, where apps have supplanted the web. And internet-connected devices that may dominate the next era in tech — smartwatches, home-assistant devices like Amazon’s Echo, or virtual reality machines like Oculus Rift — are likely to be free of the web, and may even lack screens.

But if Google is worried, it isn’t showing it. The company has long been working on a not-so-secret weapon to avert its potential irrelevance. Google has shoveled vast financial and engineering resources into a collection of data mining and artificial intelligence systems, from speech recognition to machine translation to computer vision.

Now Google is melding these advances into a new product, a technology whose ultimate aim is something like the talking computer on “Star Trek.”It is a high-stakes bet: If this new tech fails, it could signal the beginning of the end of Google’s reign over our lives. But if it succeeds, Google could achieve a centrality in human experience unrivaled by any tech product so far.

The company calls its version of this all-powerful machine the Google Assistant. Today, it resembles other digital helpers you’ve likely used — things like Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana. It currently lives in Google’s new messaging app, Allo, and will also be featured in a few new gadgets the company plans to unveil next week, including a new smartphone and an Amazon Echo-like talking computer called Google Home.

But Google has much grander aims for the Assistant. People at the company say that Sundar Pichai, who took over as Google’s chief executive last year after Google was split into a conglomerate called Alphabet, has bet the company on the new tech. Mr. Pichai declined an interview request for this column, but at Google’s developer conference in May, he called the development of the Assistant “a seminal moment” for the company.

If the Assistant or something like it does not take off, Google’s status as the chief navigator of our digital lives could be superseded by a half-dozen other assistants. You might interact with Alexa in your house, with Siri on your phone, and with Facebook Messenger’s chatbot when you’re out and about. Google’s search engine (not to mention its Android operating system, Chrome, Gmail, Maps and other properties) would remain popular and lucrative, but possibly far less so than they are today.

That’s the threat. But the Assistant also presents Google with a delicious opportunity. The “Star Trek” computer is no metaphor. The company believes that machine learning has advanced to the point that it is now possible to build a predictive, all-knowing, superhelpful and conversational assistant of the sort that Captain Kirk relied on to navigate the stars.


CreditStuart Goldenberg

The Assistant, in Google’s most far-out vision, would always be around, wherever you are, on whatever device you use, to handle just about any informational task.

Consider this common situation: Today, to book a trip, you usually have to load up several travel sites, consult your calendar and coordinate with your family and your colleagues. If the Assistant works as well as Google hopes, all you might have to do is say, “O.K., Google, I need to go to Hong Kong next week. Take care of it.”

Based on your interactions with it over the years, Google would know your habits, your preferences and your budget. It would know your friends, family and your colleagues. With access to so much data, and with the computational power to interpret all of it, the Assistant most likely could handle the entire task; if it couldn’t, it would simply ask you to fill in the gaps, the way a human assistant might.

Computers have made a lot of everyday tasks far easier to accomplish, yet they still require a sometimes annoying level of human involvement to get the most out of them. The Assistant’s long-term aim is to eliminate all this busywork.

If it succeeds, it would be the ultimate expression of what Larry Page, Google’s co-founder, once described as the perfect search engine: a machine that “understands exactly what you mean and gives you back exactly what you want.”

At this point, a few readers may be recoiling at the potential invasion of autonomy and privacy that such a machine would necessitate.

The Assistant would involve giving ourselves over to machines more fully. We would trust them not just with our information but increasingly with our decisions. Many people are already freaked out by what Google, Facebook and other tech companies know about us. Would we be willing to hand over even more power to computers?

Those are important questions, but they are also well down the road. For now, the more pressing question for the Assistant is: Will it even work?


Sundar Pichai, Google’s chief executive, calls the development of the assistant “a seminal moment” for the company. CreditJustin Sullivan/Getty Images

Google has technological advantages that suggest it could build a more capable digital assistant than others have accomplished. Many of the innovations that it has built into its search engine — including its knowledge graph database of more than a billion people, places and things, and the 17 years it has spent trying to understand the meaning of web queries — will form the Assistant’s brain.

Google has also been one of the leaders in machine learning, the process that allows computers to discover facts about the world without being explicitly programmed. Machine learning is at the heart of a number of recent advances, including Google Photos’ uncanny capacity to search through your images for arbitrary terms (photos of people hugging, for instance).

“We are in the process of transforming into a machine-learning company,” Jeff Dean, who is in charge of Google Brain, the company’s artificial intelligence project, told me this year. For each problem Google solves this way, it gets better at solving other problems. “It’s a boulder going downhill gathering more momentum as it goes,” Mr. Dean said.

If you use the Assistant today, you’ll see some of these advances. As my colleague Brian X. Chen explained last week, if your friend sends you a picture of his dog on Allo, Google Assistant will not only recognize that it’s a dog, but it will also tell you the breed.

That’s an amazing technological feat. But as Brian pointed out, it’s also pretty useless. Why does your friend care if you know his dog’s a Shih Tzu?

This gets to a deeper difficulty. The search company might have the technical capacity to create the smartest assistant around, but it’s not at all clear that it has the prowess to create the friendliest, most charming or most useful assistant. Google needs to nail not just Assistant’s smarts, but also its personality — a new skill for Google, and one that its past forays into social software (Google Plus, anyone?) don’t speak highly of.

Then there is the mismatch between Google’s ambitions and Assistant’s current reality. Danny Sullivan, the founding editor of Search Engine Land, told me that so far, he hadn’t noticed the Assistant helping him in any major way.

“When I was trying to book a movie, it didn’t really narrow things down for me,” he said. “And there were some times it was wrong. I asked it to show me my upcoming trip, and it didn’t get that.”

Of course, it’s still early. Mr. Sullivan has high hopes for the Assistant. It would be premature to look at the technology today and get discouraged about its future, especially since Google sees this as a multiyear, perhaps even decade-long project. And especially if Google’s future depends on getting this right.


Diane Greene, the woman Google acqui-hired in November to transform its fragmented cloud business

The first thing to understand about Diane Greene, the woman Google acqui-hired in November to transform its fragmented cloud business, is that she has the mind of an engineer.

Cool technology, elegantly designed and built, lights her up. Even her jokes tend to be geek oriented.

A lifelong competitive sailor, she was a mechanical engineer who built boats and windsurfers before she became an iconic Silicon Valley computer scientist.

The second thing to understand about her is that she hates the limelight.

While she’s fine with standing on stage talking about all the cool things Google is building for their new target customer, big companies, she prefers not to talk about herself.

In fact, she’s so ego-free, her office at Google’s Mountain View, California, headquarters is just a tiny windowless room, big enough to hold an ordinary desk and two chairs.

Diane GreeneBusiness InsiderDiane Greene.

Before she took the job, Google had been building products and pursuing business customers in a sort of hodgepodge way. Its Google for Work unit had Google Apps, Chromebooks, and an assortment of other products like videoconferencing.

It had poached Amit Singh from Oracle a few years back to help turn Google Apps into a more professional business unit, capable of taking on Microsoft Office. He had hired salespeople and created a support organization. (He’s since moved on to work for Google’s young virtual-reality unit.)

But Google for Work wasn’t working very closely with Google’s nascent cloud-computing business, running under Urs Hölzle.

That unit included a huge cadre of people running Google’s data centers (600 computer-security experts alone, for instance), but only a small separate sales force.

In the seven months since Greene came in that’s changed. She:

  • hired experienced enterprise sales and support personnel.
  • created the office of the CTO, which handles the technical questions, design, or customization of large customer needs.
  • created units that focus on specific industries, because an agriculture firm has different needs than a retailer.
  • created programs for getting more „reseller“ partners on board, the small consultants who will sell and support Google’s cloud to smaller customers, offering niche services.
  • created a Global Alliance program for working with big global partners.

„So these are all new,“ Greene tells us.

Now all the teams are working together. „We all get together once a week, we share and discuss and debate,” she says. „It wasn’t possible before I came because sales and marketing were in a different division than cloud. And cloud was in a different division than Apps. I feel like the structure is in place now and we’re hiring very aggressively.”

Hölzle wooed her to the job

Greene made her name as cofounder of VMware, with her famous Stanford professor husband, Mendel Rosenblum. VMware has gone on to become a giant tech company. She left the VMware CEO role about eight years ago, after EMC bought it.

Google Urs HolzleGoogle+Urs Hölzle.

Until taking this Google job, she was quietly doing her own thing, raising her kids, advising and angel investing in startups (many of which did spectacularly well), and serving on a few boards, including Google’s board since 2012. She was under the radar but still highly and widely respected, the queen of enterprise computing.

She was also working on a new startup, Bebop Technologies, until Google bought it for $380 million when it hired her. Greene’s take was $149 million, and she and her husband dedicated that money to charity.

Hölzle, the engineer who famously built Google’s data centers and runs the technical side of the cloud business, is Greene’s partner.

He believes that within a few years, Google’s cloud business can be bigger than its ad business. That’s a big goal: Google currently makes the vast majority of its $75 billion in annual revenue from ads.

Hölzle is the one who talked Greene into taking this job as they hung out walking their dogs together.

„Through being on the board, I got to know Urs and started working with him informally,“ Greene says.

„We knew we needed an overall business leader. He’s a brilliant person and fun to work with. He really wanted to me to do it. I just realized, wow, partnering with Urs, we can really do this, with the backdrop of Google which is just this amazing company,“ she says.

A new phenom

Google has placed itself at the center of one of the biggest, newest trends happening in the enterprise market. Some people call this trend digital transformation. But it’s more than just automating manual processes or turning paper forms into iPad apps.

cowsFlickr/Amanda Parsons

More and more, the IT departments at large companies have started treating their tech vendors as partners that help them cocreate the tech they need.

“This is new for me. I’ve never been in the enterprise where your customers are your partners. It was always, you had customers and you had partners. But almost every customer of a certain size is a partner. It’s going both ways now,“ Greene says.

She points to one customer, Land O’Lakes, as an example.

Land O’Lakes is probably best known for its butter and dairy products. It took crop and weather data from Google and worked with Google to build an app hosted on Google’s cloud. The app helps its farm and dairy co-op members improve their crop yields.

“It’s fun for us to help them do that,” she says. Unlike the old days, where an IT company would be the one to build the app and sell it to agriculture companies, “we don’t have to do it ourselves.”

‚More and more‘

This idea of partnering with customers is the key to her strategy.

google photos california mountainsTim Stenovec/Business InsiderGoogle Photos understand the image in the photo.

„For me, this is such a revolution,“ she says. „Everything is changing now that we are in the cloud in terms of sharing our data, understanding our data using new techniques like machine learning.“

Google’s competitive strength, Greene believes, is the breadth of the tech it can offer an enterprise.

Enterprise-app developers can tap into things like Maps, Google’s computer-vision engine (the tech that powers Google Photos), weather data, and language/translation/speech recognition. They can build apps on top of Google’s Calendar, documents, spreadsheet and presentation apps.

And, under Greene’s new integrated organization, they can even tap into the tech that powers Google’s ads or YouTube, search, or its many other services.

„And we’re going to have more and more,“ she says.

When a company can take its own data and combine it with all of Google’s technology and Google’s data, „there’s just huge possibilities,“ she says.

google chromebook play store android appsGoogle

Greene will tell you, „We’re the only public cloud company with all of that.“

When pointing out that Microsoft also offers a computer vision API, translation services, and APIs for Office 365, and that IBM also offers weather data and language services, and so on, Greene’s got a comeback ready.

“We have Chromebooks.”

Well, Microsoft has Surface.

“But Chromebooks can run all the Android apps, are totally secure, they have administration … and they have a nice keyboard,“ she laughs.

In fact, Greene says, “I only use a Chromebook now. I never thought I could do that but I love it.”

She’s watching Amazon

In truth, she’s not laser-focused on overtaking Microsoft, widely considered the No. 2 cloud player, with Google trailing behind.

google cloud napkinGoogle

She, like all the cloud vendors, are looking at market leader Amazon Web Services, which is raking in the enterprise-cloud customers.

AWS is even convincing a growing number of them to shut down all of their data centers and just rent everything from AWS. This includes Intuit, the other company where Greene is a board member.

AWS is so successful it’s currently on track to do $10 billion in revenue this fiscal year, and it’s also Amazon’s most profitable business unit.

And it blows all the competition out of the water in the sheer number of features on its cloud, as well as its partner ecosystem.

So how is she going to beat Amazon? By offering better tech, she says.

“I’m a little biased but I really do think, on the hard stuff, we’re the world’s best cloud,” she says.

Diane GreeneGoogleDiane Greene

“I agree we have more features to do, although we have the basics for enterprise that you need. We have more partners to bring on, but we’re doing that very quickly. But the hard stuff, I do think we’re the world’s best.”

While Greene would not share the cloud unit’s growth numbers, she says that “growth is really good and we’re doing great stuff with some really big customers.“

She adds: „We’ve been moving customers to our cloud both from Amazon and on-prem.“

„On-prem“ means getting companies to move the apps they have running in their own computers on their own premises into Google’s cloud.

Google has even been engaging Amazon with its price-cut war, according to Greene. “They’ve been following our price cuts. We’ve been initiating them,” she says.

She jokes, „We should make a T-shirt: ‚the highest quality, lowest-cost cloud.'“


lower-cost gadgetry that lasts a lot longer could be a dire omen for high-margin hardware companies like Apple

This week, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich announced that people are keeping their PCs a lot longer before upgrading: The average has increased from four years to as many as six.

The tablet-refresh cycle isn’t much shorter than that, to Apple’s eternal chagrin. Even iPhone sales have started to taper off, partly because people are keeping their phones longer or choosing cheaper Android phones.

What’s happening is pretty simple. The hardware and the software running on any device itself have become way less interesting than the web apps and services, like the ones that Google and Amazon have made the core of their business.

Why buy a $700 iPhone when a $200 Android phone can access the same YouTube or Amazon Music as everyone else? All you need to do to get new Facebook features is refresh your browser or update your app. You don’t need a high-performance device to participate in the 21st century.

It’s a stark contrast with the traditional model for consumer electronics, where you’re expected to upgrade the hardware to keep pace with the new features they release.

And it could be a dire omen for high-margin hardware companies like Apple.

Meanwhile, web-first companies like Amazon and Google are more than happy to exploit this, even as our notions of what a computer actually is continue to shift. Just look at devices like Google Chromecast and the Amazon Echo.

Chromecast, Echo, case in point

Since 2013, Google has sold 25 million Chromecast devices — the completely amazing $35 dongles that turn any TV into a smart TV. That’s right, $35.

The real brilliance of the Chromecast lies in what it isn’t, rather than what it is. It doesn’t have an interface of its own. You just push a button on your phone and have whatever YouTube video you’re watching or Spotify album you’re listening to appear on your TV screen.

A nice side effect: It’s relatively simple to take an existing smartphone app and add Chromecast streaming capabilities, and literally tens of thousands of apps have done that integration.

You don’t have to think about it or learn a new interface; you just click and go.Mike George Amazon VP of EchoGettyAmazon VP of Echo Mike George.

It means that every single day, I get more return on the initial $35 investment in the Chromecast I bought in 2014. But since all of the good stuff is happening in the apps, not the Chromecast itself, it’s extremely unlikely that I will ever have to replace this Chromecast, barring a hardware malfunction.

You could probably say the same thing about the Amazon Echo home voice assistant. Developers have released almost 1,000 „skills“ for the Amazon Echo’s Alexa platform, including the ability to call an Uber, play Spotify music, or order a Domino’s pizza.

These gadgets are getting better, not worse, the longer they stay on shelves. And while there may be periodic minor hardware improvements, they’re way more minor than the gap between an iPhone 5 and an iPhone 6, and far less necessary to keep getting maximum value from the device.

The pressure is on

This move is going to keep putting pressure on hardware-first manufacturers — especially those who rely on high margins, like Apple.

The Chromecast and the Echo are relatively cheap gadgets — because all the important, useful stuff about them lives in the cloud, they’re optimized to be small, efficient, and unobtrusive.

Tesla autopilotTeslaTesla’s autopilot mode scanning the road.

Amazon doesn’t need to make money on the Echo itself, as long as it drives more commerce to its retail business. Same with Google: as long as the Chromecast gets more people to watch YouTube videos and download more stuff from Google Play, they don’t have to make money from the gadget itself.

And you’re seeing more of this all over, like when Tesla made thousands of its electric cars partially self-driving with an overnight software update. The gadget Tesla drivers already owned — in this case a car — suddenly got way more useful.

This trend isn’t going to kill off the smartphone, or the PC, or the tablet. But it means lower-cost gadgetry that lasts a lot longer. We’re only seeing the early stages of this shift now, but it has a lot of potential to shake up how we think about and how we buy our devices.

The Evolution of Messengers at Google

Google has announced three new communication apps this week: Spaces, Allo and Duo. That’s in addition to the three it already has. To understand why it’s doing this, and why it’ll do it again, we only need to look to its past.

Twelve years ago, Google began its shift from being „just“ the world’s most popular search engine to something much more: It released Gmail. Soon, the company was offering several options for communication. By 2009 Google users had a pretty robust set of tools at their disposal. Gmail for email, Talk for real-time text and voice chats, Voice for VoIP calling, and Android to facilitate everything else. Unfortunately, this simple delineation would quickly disappear as the company launched more and more services.

Google Wave was the first addition. Announced in mid-2009, it mashed together elements of bulletin boards, instant messaging and collaborative editing to pretty awesome effect. It grew a small but fervent community — I was a big fan — until Google halted development.

Then came Buzz. Launched in 2010, it was Google’s first attempt at a bona fide social network. It failed miserably, not least due to complaints about the way Google forced it upon users and some valid privacy concerns. Although neither Wave nor Buzz really competed with what the company was already offering, that would change when Google launched its next attempt at a social network, Google+.

In addition to standard social networking, Google+ also had two features that facilitated direct communication with individuals and groups: Hangouts and Huddles. Not to be mistaken with the current app, Hangouts at the time offered multiuser video chat for people in the same Circle. Huddle, on the other hand, was an instant messaging app for talking with other Google+ users.

Huddle would soon become Google+ Messenger, offering the same functionality as Google Talk, while Hangouts would expand to seriously encroach on Google Voice. Within a year, Google had added the ability to make „audio-only“ calls by inviting users to join Hangouts over a regular phone line.

Google now had two apps for everything, coupled with the problem that many users — even on its Android platform — were still using SMS to communicate on the go. It began work to rectify this and unify its disparate platforms. In 2013 we got an all-new Hangouts, available cross-platform and on the web. It merged the functionality of Hangouts and Messenger, and it also replaced Talk within Gmail if you opted to upgrade. Voice was still out in the cold and SMS wasn’t integrated, but the company was moving in the right direction.

In late 2013, Google added SMS to Hangouts, and in Android 4.4 it replaced Messaging as the OS default for texting. By Oct. 2014 Google had integrated VoIP into Hangouts as well. It finally had one app for everything.

You could assert that Hangouts was a better app because of the confusing mess that preceded it. Google tried lots of things and put the best elements from all of its offerings into a single app.

That arguably should have been the end of the story, but it’s not. For whatever reason — probably because it figured out that a lot of Android users didn’t use Hangouts — Google released another app in Nov. 2014 called Messenger. This Messenger had nothing to do with Google+ but instead was a simple app focused on SMS and MMS. Hangouts could and can still handle your texts, but Messenger is now standard on Nexus phones and can be installed on any Android phone from the Play Store. This confusing muddle means that if you have, say, a new flagship Samsung phone, you’ll have two apps capable of handling your SMS (Samsung’s app and Hangouts), with the possibility of adding a third with Messenger.

Hangouts, for the most part, has been doing a fine job.

Still, SMS isn’t exactly a burning priority for most people, and Hangouts, for the most part, has been doing a fine job. I can’t say I use it that often — my conversations are mostly through Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, because that’s where my friends are — but when I do, it’s a pleasant-enough experience. The same can be said for Google+: It’s actually a great social network now, aside from the fact that barely anyone uses it.

That’s the issue that Google faces today and the reason why these new apps exist. More people are using Facebook Messenger than Hangouts. More people are using WhatsApp than Hangouts. More people are using Snapchat than Hangouts. And everyone uses everything other than Google+.

So we now have three new apps from Google, each performing pretty different tasks. The first is Spaces. Think of it as Google+ redux redux redux. It takes the service’s fresh focus on communities and collections and puts it into an app that exists outside the social network. The end result is a mashup of Slack, Pinterest, Facebook Groups and Trello. It’s promising, but, as of writing, it’s very much a work in progress.

Next up is Allo, a reaction to Facebook Messenger and Microsoft’s efforts in the chatbot space. It uses machine learning to streamline conversations with auto replies and also offers a virtual assistant that’ll book restaurants for you, answer questions and do other chatbotty things. Just like Spaces exists outside Google+, Allo exists outside Hangouts. You don’t even need a Google account to sign up, just a phone number — much like how WhatsApp doesn’t require a Facebook account.

Finally we have Duo, which is by far the most focused of the three. It basically duplicates Hangouts‘ original function: video calling. According to the PR, it makes mobile video calls „fast“ and „simple,“ and it’s only going to be available on Android and iOS. Both Duo and Allo also have the distinction of offering end-to-end encryption — although Allo doesn’t do so by default — the absence of which has been something privacy advocates have hated about Hangouts.

This summer, when Duo and Allo become available, Google users will be at another confusing impasse. Want to send a message to a friend? Pick from Hangouts, Allo or Messenger. Want to make a video call? Hangouts or Duo. Group chat? Hangouts, Allo or Spaces. It’s not user-friendly, and it’s not sustainable.

Sure, Facebook sustains two chat services (WhatsApp and its own Messenger) just fine, but it bought WhatsApp as a fully independent, hugely popular app and has barely changed a thing. Google doesn’t have that luxury. Instead, it’ll borrow another Facebook play: Test new features on a small audience and integrate. Over the past couple of years Facebook has released Slingshot, Rooms, Paper, Riff, Strobe, Shout, Selfied and Moments. I’m probably missing a few.

All of these apps were essentially built around a single feature: private chats, ephemeral messaging, a prettier news feed, selfies, etc. The vast majority won’t get traction on their own, but their features might prove useful enough to fold into the main Facebook and Messenger apps. And if one of them takes off, no problem, you’ve got another successful app.

This has to be Google’s strategy for Allo, Duo and Spaces. We don’t know what Google’s communication offerings will look like at the end of this year, let alone 2017. But chances are that Google will continue to float new ideas before eventually merging the best of them into a single, coherent application, as it did with Hangouts. And then it’ll start the process again. In the meantime, Google will spend money developing x number of duplicate apps, and users will have to deal with a confusing mess of applications on their home screens.

Daydream: Google’s Ambitious New Bid To Bring VR To The Masses

Google is releasing a new ecosystem to put virtual reality into the hands of everyone.

Today at Google I/O, the company revealed a new virtual reality standard that may finally bring VR to the masses. It’s called Daydream, and it’s an open-source headset and motion controller that’s compatible with souped-up Android phones. Daydream will arrive this September for an unknown, but likely not that expensive, price.

If Google pulls it off, Daydream will be both cheaper and easier to use than its fancy VR counterparts, because Google has reimagined Android software to work in VR—and every Android phone of the future could be built VR-ready at its core.

Google Finds A Better Metaphor For VR

When you think about VR, what’s the metaphor you use? The Matrix? Lawnmower Man? It’s all dark imagery of headsets, body suits, black metal and plastic, like someone designed a commando knife for your face, then tethered it to a 1980s PC with more wires than your surround sound home theater system. It became the HTC Vive or Oculus Rift.

That’s one end of the spectrum. On the other, you have Google Cardboard. It’s literally the prize from a cereal box, stuck to your face. It’s cheap, fun, and inherently kind of crap. Nobody wants to unwind from a stressful day by climbing into a cardboard cube.

With Daydream, Google has landed on a happy medium. It’s a headset that’s built with soft materials like fabric. It takes only a moment to pop your phone inside, then it clasps shut like the lever on a self-corking bottle, and you’re in VR. By swinging what looks like a TV remote, you can do things like grab objects, flip pancakes, or go fishing in the virtual world.

In Daydream, you can walk the sidewalks of Paris with Streetview or watch YouTube clips on an IMAX screen, and it probably won’t be that expensive (we’d ballpark $100 or less, given the comparative price of the Samsung Gear VR).

How? Because Google created the Daydream headset and controller as a reference spec that’s open for any manufacturer to make—and potentially even compete with each other to drive down the price. And Google being as influential as it is, the company convinced Android phone manufacturers to build their phones differently. So your next Android phone may double as one of the best VR headsets in the world—one that you may actually want to use.

Google Is Upgrading Android, And Convincing Phone Manufacturers To Standardize For VR

But why will Daydream be any better than the mobile VR offerings of Cardboard, or Samsung’s (admittedly superb) Gear VR? In short, it’s the software, and it’s the hardware.

On the software side, Google has built Android N (that’s the next version of Android coming out this September) to accommodate VR. Developers can code their software to take full advantage of the phone’s processing cores to push the sorts of specs you need for VR, like high frame rates. For users, Android will be designed to feel welcoming to people in VR. Upon putting on the headset, Android users will enter a new app called Daydream Home that looks like a virtual 3-D environment, crossed with an app manager. Android N will also support several VR-enabled core apps on the phone. That means you can buy items inside a VR version of Google Play, or use Streetview and YouTube in VR. Right now, if you use a VR headset on an Android phone, you feel sequestered to a select few apps. Android N seems to invite Daydream VR as an alternate way of using the phone itself.

On the hardware side, Google has convinced phone manufacturers to build what are being called „Daydream Ready“ phones. The list of partners is long and impressive, including Samsung, HTC, Huawei, Xiaomi, LG, and HTC. Google doesn’t go into a lot of detail on what constitutes a Daydream Ready phone, but they appear to be certified to share basic specs of performance (processors, GPUs, and RAM), a few extra sensors, and similarly designed screens that can allow the phone to slip into a special set of lenses to transport you into high-performance VR. (Samsung’s Gear VR works so well because it has extra sensors inside. Daydream distributes all of the technology to the phone itself, so many VR experiences could perform just as well with a super simple, lens-only Cardboard style headset.)

How good will the Daydream experience be? It’s hard to know without actually trying it, and Google isn’t offering demos at I/O. Daydream still won’t have the full six-axis tracking that the highest-end headsets, the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, do. That means in Daydream, you can still look around up, down, and in a 360-degree circle, but when you poke your head forward or lean back, your perspective doesn’t change. It’s a compromise of immersion, but from my experience, VR can still leave you in awe without all six axes involved.

But The Bigger Deal May Be Google Standardizing The Control Of VR

Alongside their Daydream headset, Google also introduced what looks like a littler version of Nintendo’s Wiimote controller. They’re not sharing much in terms of technical specs, but it appears to be a motion-sensitive remote that enables all those gestures you might remember from the Nintendo Wii. (Tennis, anyone?) It also features a touchpad on top, so you can flick or swipe.

The importance of this little remote to the future of VR can’t be overstated. It’s Google’s attempt to bring control parity to the mobile VR industry, all via an approachable bit of industrial design that shouldn’t freak people out like a pair of these. And Google seems to want their headset and remote to feel comfortable and intuitive above all else.

Thus far, mobile VR has relied entirely on an aim-your-head, tap-one-button on your temple, control experience. That’s a literal pain in the neck after about 20 minutes. There has been limited support for gamepads and other controllers, but the problem is that, with countless hardware manufacturers developing their own weird configurations, there’s no baseline for all of the app developers to design to. So even an app that technically supports a gamepad might not play very well, because the tiniest bits of finesse with an analog stick are lost to a developer coding for 10,000 different possible controllers. Meanwhile, Google has created one remote to rule them all.

Daydream Will Be The Way Most People Experience Decent VR, Soon

Google could be successful because the company is really thinking through the whole ecosystem of VR—hardware, apps, the UX, and even the phones that could power a mobile VR revolution. However, Google still faces one big hurdle: Google. The company’s broad strategy makes a lot of sense, but that doesn’t change the fact that it has an unsteady track record when stepping into the world of hardware. There’s no guarantee that any piece of hardware designed by Google will be a hit. Google’s own Nexus smartphones (technically made by third parties) are not the most popular Android phones, and Google abandoned projects like the Nexus Q and Google TV from lack of interest. If Daydream flops out of the gate, what then?

But I can’t help but consider the brass tacks: Five million Google Cardboard headsets have sold to date. One million people are using Samsung’s Gear VR. These numbers are respectable in a world that’s only trending more in the direction of mobile. Meanwhile, there are 1.5 billion active Android phones in the world. They can’t, and won’t, support Daydream today. The next 1.5 billion, however? If the standards are in place to make the experience both decent and affordable, why not? With Daydream, Google just gave us a VR standard that could unite the mobile VR world. And increasingly, it’s looking like the mobile VR world may be the only one that matters.

All Images: courtesy Google