Comparisons between Apple and Google are inescapable now that the two increasingly play in the same categories: smartphones, voice assistants, home automation, photo sharing, and so on.
In recent years, Apple and Google have invited such comparisons with dueling springtime press events that reveal products and services intended to compete for consumer hearts and pocketbooks (see “Google I/O 2016 Includes Announcements with Apple Appeal,” 23 May 2016).
This year, the cycle is repeating. Google last week took over an outdoor amphitheater in Mountain View, California, to unleash a torrent of tech news during its Google I/O keynote, which precedes Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference in nearby San Jose by less than a month.
Much of what Google announced is relevant to Apple users. For instance, Google’s voice-controlled Assistant app has finally come to the iPhone to go up against Apple’s Siri. Many photography enthusiasts prefer the Google Photos service over Apple’s iCloud Photo Library, and Google announced a number of upgrades in that department.
Angst about Apple falling behind is an inevitable byproduct of every Google I/O keynote. As the absence of a Siri device similar to Amazon’s popular Echo voice-controlled gadgets becomes ever more glaring, Google announced improvements to its Echo competitor, the Google Home. Rumors have lately swirled about an Apple reveal at WWDC, but we will have to wait and see whether the mythical Siri Speaker actually exists.
Here is a look at Google I/O announcements that intersect with Apple in some fashion. Note that some of the products, services, and technologies mentioned below aren’t available immediately but are coming soon.
Google Assistant -- Siri has its limitations, as iOS-device owners will attest. Fortunately, there are alternatives.
Amazon brought its Alexa voice assistant, the one built into Echo devices, to the iPhone last March, via an update to the company’s Amazon App for iOS. Now, Google Assistant has come to the iPhone as well.
Unsurprisingly, the Google Assistant iOS app is just an app, unlike its deeper integration on Android-based devices. Given that Siri can be invoked with a press of the Home button at any time, Apple still has a significant advantage in iOS. But iPhone users who already rely on other Google services, or are just frustrated with Siri, may find Google’s new voice app tempting.
Google Assistant has a chat-like interface (familiar to the handful of iPhone users who have installed Google’s Allo chat app) and can be manipulated either with voice commands or by typing, for those embarrassed by vocalized directives. There’s a shortcut widget in Notification Center, for added convenience.
Google Assistant is handy for requesting workout tunes; getting stock updates or the news; accessing YouTube or Netflix videos; making Google keyword searches; getting directions; initiating calls, texts, and emails; and much more.
But Google Assistant’s lack of full iPhone integration means you cannot invoke it by voice or a press of the Home button, access low-level functions like Airplane Mode, and so on. Access to non-Google apps is clunky, when it’s available at all. If you aren’t heavily invested in the Google ecosystem, Google Assistant may be more trouble than it is worth.
The fact that the main Google search app is separate from and partly redundant with the Google Assistant app makes things more confusing. And while you can use the Google Assistant app on the iPad, it’s not tablet-native.
Google Assistant should improve, though, as Google now makes it possible for developers to add capabilities via an SDK. These, interestingly, include appliance maker General Electric. There’s even an extension to let Google Assistant control Philips Hue lights (see “Getting Started with the Philips Hue Smart Light Bulbs,” 1 August 2016).
Google Home -- Google was playing catch-up with Amazon’s popular Echo at last year’s Google I/O when it announced its voice-controlled Google Home gadget. That product did not become available to the public until months later, and in many respects still lags behind the Echo.
For Apple users who are invested in Google’s ecosystem, though, the Google Home may have more appeal than an Echo device. This year’s improvements increase the allure.
Such enhancements include an option to make outgoing (and, in the United States, free) calls to landline and cellular phones, essentially turning the Google Home into a speakerphone. You can even associate your phone number with it, but you can’t receive calls for now. Another new feature called “proactive assistance” pushes relevant information to users – calendar reminders and traffic updates, for instance – without being asked.
Google Home has been tweaked to work better with Chromecast-capable televisions, too. You can initiate programming from the likes of HBO GO. More interesting is how Google Home can display responses to your questions on the TV screen, such as your calendar or a map with driving directions. Some responses just don’t work in audio form, so having a screen on which to display information can be a big win.
Google Photos -- Google’s photo-sharing service debuted at Google I/O two years ago and has since been a top priority for the company. Users have seen a steady flow of upgrades, which are available to iOS- and Android-device owners via apps as well as those accessing the service via desktop Web browsers.
To enhance the service, Google last week rolled out a new batch of enhancements that are largely focused on sharing.
Most notable is a Suggested Sharing feature that picks out what it thinks are the best photos from an event, identifies people in those photos, and offers to send the right shots to the right people. It will even nudge recipients to add their own photos of the same event.
A Shared Libraries feature provides a different sort of sharing automation. It lets you automatically share photos with a particular person like a spouse or a best friend. That person can get access to your full library, just shots of certain people, or only photos from a given date forward. They can also access and save “creations” (collages, animated GIFs, slideshows) made from the shots, either manually by you or automatically by Google.
One Google Photos announcement is a catch-up maneuver. Google Photo users can now order customized hardcover or softcover photo books, an option that had long been available to users of Apple’s Photos and similar services, including, at one time, Google Photos predecessor Picasa Web Albums.
Google Lens -- This isn’t a product or feature but, rather, a technology that will augment the capabilities of Google’s services – starting, the company said, with Google Assistant and Google Photos.
Google describes Google Lens as “a set of vision-based computing capabilities that can understand what you are looking at and help you take action based on that information.”
You’ll be able to point your smartphone camera at a flower, for instance, and have Google Assistant identify it for you. Likewise, you could aim your phone at a storefront to get information and reviews about that establishment. Also, Google Lens will enable Google Assistant to analyze the significance of text in useful ways, such as translating foreign languages on menus or logging you into Wi-Fi networks if it can see and parse corresponding SSIDs and passwords.
Google Photos is already somewhat competent at identifying people, animals, objects, places, and so on, and that capability should improve as Google Lens learns to recognize more images.
Virtual Reality -- This is another tech category that makes pundits wonder what Apple is doing, especially as Google and others push aggressively into the space.
At last year’s Google I/O, Google announced VR goggles meant to be used with Android smartphones, as well as Daydream technology built into the latest such phones to boost their VR capabilities.
This year, Google is taking another VR step, announcing specifications for standalone VR goggles that require neither a smartphone nor a tethered connection to a desktop computer, as some high-end VR goggles do. Google is working with hardware partners like HTC and Lenovo to make these devices happen.
Inbox has long had “smart replies” with auto-generated text snippets to let users answer email messages with just a tap. This feature is now making its way to the older, more popular Gmail app for iOS.
Looking Forward to WWDC -- This is an exciting time of year in consumer technology because of events like Google I/O and WWDC that give us a better sense of how these tech titans are competing for new users.
Make no mistake, Google and Apple are in a struggle for the ages, and they’re not alone, with Amazon and Microsoft trying to appeal to tech consumers as well (see “New Microsoft OS and Laptop Aim at Apple and Google in Education,” 3 May 2017).
Our gaze is now focused on San Jose, and on what Tim Cook and crew have to show us on 5 June 2017 during the WWDC keynote.