Benner on Tech: The Verdict on Google's New Projects

Katie Benner is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes about technology, innovation, and the cult and culture of Silicon Valley. She lives in San Francisco.
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The first day of Google’s developer conference Google I/O produced a huge sprawling mess of announcements, which I suppose people have come to expect. Bloomberg summed it up with the headline: “Another Year, Another Technology Deluge From Google.”

People generally loved that Google is offering free, unlimited photo storage, which could create a real challenger to Dropbox. The new Android operating system was announced, with beefed-up security and a Google Now feature called Now on Tap, which lets Google essentially add its own search layer on top of apps. Bloomberg called it a “bombshell.” And the company said it’s moving into the Internet of things in a big way with an operating system called Brillo and that it’s working on a payments system that lets customer pay without ever taking their phones or wallets out of their pockets. The New York Times has a handy Google Wallet/Android Pay primer.  

Google is also diving deeper into virtual reality with its Cardboard project, an inexpensive device that can turn a smartphone into a virtual reality video viewing device. It’s the democratization of VR, which analysts at Piper Jaffray named the next mega-tech theme. Cardboard costs about $4, and the specs are online so anyone can make a viewer. If you go the Oculus Rift route, the total price tag is around $1,500. Google is also working with GoPro to make the kind of camera you need to shoot a VR video. Again, it will be relatively affordable and help put the tech into the hands of more people. Google Maps will be available offlineGoogle Play will get HBO.

If this sounds to you more like a hodge podge of random stuff than a set of projects and directives that are clearly pushing the company in any one direction, well, that’s probably a reflection of the current state of Google.

Ben Thompson wrote a great piece addressing this issue:

None of these had a unifying vision, just a sense that Google ought to do them because they’re a big company that ought to do big things. A bit, dare I say, like Microsoft. Some time in I think 2001 Microsoft’s famous mission statement -- A computer on every desk and in every home, running Microsoft software -- was augmented by a new “vision” statement:

At Microsoft, we work to help people and businesses throughout the world realize their full potential.

Can you see that shift? Being big and serving everyone moved from being a result to being a reason, and over the next several years Microsoft would build or buy a whole host of products ever more removed from both their mission and their business model. In the entire Android section I saw glimpses of that same shift yesterday, and for Google’s sake, I find it very concerning.

Weekend Reading

** Bloomberg’s Devin Leonard explores why Jay Z’s streaming music service Tidal has been a complete disaster.

So what is Jay Z thinking? He turned 45 in December. The onetime street hustler is now a husband and a father and hobnobs with world leaders such as President Obama and Nicolas Sarkozy, the former president of France. Some say he has grander ambitions in middle age. “He’d like to be a billionaire,” says Rob Stone, co-founder of the Fader, a magazine that extensively covers the rap world. “He’s talked openly about that. But I think in his mind, it’s no longer just about how much money he’s making. It’s about his legacy and what the name Shawn Carter will mean after he’s gone.” He wants to save the music industry from the brutal economics of streaming -- and make himself a fortune in the process. So far he’s doing neither.

** Bloomberg’s Adam Satariano introduces us to Rothenberg Ventures, the tech investing firm that’s using big, fun parties as a primary business strategy.

In his San Francisco office, Mike Rothenberg , a self-described “millennial venture capitalist,” is sipping an iced coffee surrounded by three Apple computer screens, an Apple Watch on his wrist and an iPhone within reach. He’s explaining what he means when he talks about “the transitive power of amazing.” Roughly translated, the idea is that the best way for Rothenberg’s venture firm to find promising startups and attract capital is to throw lots of parties for young technology workers.

** Apple fan and New York City DJ Brian Pennington talks about what Apple needs to do to save iTunes.

Last year iTunes downloads were down 14%, a stat that is sure to increase in the near future. While Apple is expected to unveil a version of iTunes which incorporates Beats Audio’s rebranded streaming service soon, a big part of the reason why people have left the platform is due to issues with iTunes itself. The more unpleasant it is to use, the more appealing the alternatives seem ... iTunes could reverse these trends and become most users’ preferred music platform once again. In order for that to happen, here’s what Apple will have to change.

Ventureland

Genius’s executive editor Sasha Frere-Jones, the former music critic at the New Yorker, has downshifted from full-time employee to contract worker so he can spend time on other projects. (Gawker)

Uber released its new privacy policy, effective July 15, which lets the company read text messages sent to drivers, track users during rides and store user address books on its servers. The company can also ask to track a rider even when the app is closed. (Bloomberg)

People and Personnel Moves

Ross Ulbricht, the founder of Silk Road, will be sentenced today. (Wall Street Journal)

Companies

Alibaba is working to expand its one-day delivery program. (Wall Street Journal)

Amazon is holding a contest to see who can design the perfect robot warehouse worker. (Bloomberg) The company is expanding its line of private label groceries, such as cereal and cleaning products. (Wall Street Journal)

Apple bought the German augmented-reality firm Metaio. (Wall Street Journal) Producing a Mac App Store hit won’t necessarily make you rich. (Bloomberg) A court ruled that Apple can’t get rid of the corporate monitor that was assigned to it after the company was found guilty of fixing the price of e-books. (Wall Street Journal)

Intel is nearing a deal to buy rival chipmaker Altera for $15 billion. (New York Post)

Security Watch

The Apple text messaging bug has also been found on Twitter and Snapchat. (the Guardian)

Media Files

The much-lauded “Golden Age” of television could go away because viewers don’t watch enough of it. (Bloomberg)

Netflix accounts for 36.5 percent of all Internet traffic in North America during primetime hours. (Washington Post)

Bob Lefsetz argues that curators could become powerful brands in and of themselves.

News and Notes

A huge wave of tech M&A is likely to hit in the wake of Avago’s $37 billion deal for Broadcom. (Bloomberg)

Equinix, a data center company, is buying Telecity Group for $3.6 billion. (Wall Street Journal)

Chinese tech companies are choosing to list in China rather than the U.S. (Wall Street Journal)

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler is creating a plan to make sure poor Americans can afford to access the Internet. (New York Times

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the editor on this story:
Maria Lamagna at mlamagna@bloomberg.net