Google’s developer show highlights the promise and perils of its data hoard
(Bloomberg) -- Google’s Sundar Pichai spoke to a throng of software coders on Tuesday to persuade them to build the future of computing with his company. To everyone else listening, he tried to convince them to trust Google in this future. It’s a tough balancing act.
Pichai, chief executive officer of Alphabet Inc.’s Google, headlined the company’s annual I/O conference where the internet giant releases a slate of new tools for developers of mobile apps and websites. This year’s pitch looked beyond smartphones to focus on the company’s cloud-computing, mapping and artificial intelligence software. It’s all designed to win developers away from Google’s main rivals in the race to find the next big computing platform: Apple Inc., Amazon.com Inc., Facebook Inc. and Microsoft Corp.
This year’s event took place against a backdrop of historic scrutiny from lawmakers and the public over how internet companies collect, use and control personal data. Pichai needed to address this head on, while still wooing developers with enough information to help them build useful and profitable applications.
One session highlights this tension. “How to get one-meter location-accuracy from Android devices,” scheduled for Thursday morning, promises to show how recent industry advances make it possible to pinpoint a person holding an Android gadget down to a few feet, even indoors. While this is a potential boon for developers, it may be a tougher sell for consumers after recent revelations that Facebook shared data on millions of users with a developer who passed it onto a consultant that worked on President Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign.
Google has stressed that its data systems are more secure and it keeps information anonymous. “We’ve long had a very robust and strong privacy program at Google,” Pichai told investors last month. Yet Google already gives many Android app creators access to a sea of personal information, including location history and some shopping behavior. And it has been routinely criticized for the vast targeting in its advertising business and the spread of misinformation on search results and YouTube.
Last week, Google said its latest security product, which restricts outside access to personal accounts like Gmail, was available for the iPhone. In March, it unveiled a new plan to stamp out fake news. Expect similar announcements at I/O.
But the company will have to offer developers new features, too, some of which will likely give them fresh ways to track where people go and how they interact with their devices. There are about 25 conference sessions this week on the Google Assistant, a voice-enabled, AI-powered service that the company is trying spread further and faster than Amazon’s Alexa. Google recently introduced “Shopping Actions,” a way for retailers to target ads at consumers who store their payment information with Google and shop with their voice.
Another standout for developers is Google augmented reality, or AR, software that overlays digital images with the real world. Over the past year, Google rolled out a series of tools enabling developers to make more AR apps and let them run on more phones, a move to counter Apple. Google has recently shifted more resources to AR – where it can lean on its edge with AI tools like image recognition – rather than virtual reality.
With AR, one obvious next step is to tie Google’s capabilities more closely with its digital maps. Last week, Google dropped the price for developers to tap its mapping software tool. It’s part of a concerted push to integrate more apps with Google Maps, which is considered superior to Apple’s product.
Coders who make AR apps want the nascent tech to work on more devices and in more real-world situations, said Erik Murphy-Chutorian, CEO of 8th Wall, an AR startup. Imagine phones that could point to a movie poster or an item in a store and then respond with digital information about those things. That ability requires accurate location data to really work. “Google’s strengths in mapping are second to none,” Murphy-Chutorian said. “There’s definitely an opportunity.”
--With assistance from Joshua Brustein