There is more pressure than usual on Google to deliver surprises at I/O 2022. The company is expected to unveil its Pixel Watch, along with a more budget-friendly Pixel 6A, plus the latest slew of new Android 13 software and new features. Who knows? Maybe we’ll see something else entirely.
The stakes are high, as always, for the new stuff to be good, and I don’t really doubt Google’s ability to impress with these new products. It’s rare that Google doesn’t have at least a handful of announcements (including a few pie-in-the-sky ones) that show extremely well. After all, what makes I/O fun to watch is that it is a mix of the tech that’s within reach, along with some more far-flung stuff.
But what some of us at The BlueHillco are most excited for couldn’t sound duller by comparison. Instead of being surprised, we simply want to see if 2022 is the year Google figures out how to make its products relevant, for real people, for the long run. Releasing them is step one, but providing meaningful, long-term support behind these new products and the platforms that they operate on is something that Google still hasn’t proven itself capable of even after all these years. I’m not just talking about guaranteeing security and OS updates — the boring stuff. I want to see Google go out on a limb for these gadgets and ideas like it has more than couch-cushion money to lose.
Follow-through has never been Google’s strong suit. Many of its products have languished in ways that lend further credence to Google’s infamous reputation for abandoning even its best ideas. There have been so many standout I/O announcements that seemed great but haven’t lived up to their potential, like Google’s Assistant-powered Duplex service that can answer or place calls for you, which has been slow to gain traction even among people who could use it the most. Then there are ones that just straight up never materialized, like the ambitious Project Starline that Google claimed could provide a more realistic video chat experience, with depth sensors to make it look like the other person is sitting across the table.
Looking back on 2021, it failed to make good on the buzz it made on its marquee products. Its Stadia cloud game streaming platform was drastically scaled back in scope less than two years after Google became the first tech giant to go big with game streaming. Android 12 delivered underwhelming changes, and its Material You design widget rollout has been mediocre at best (it should be called Meh-terial you). The Pixel 6 had a buggy launch, which it still hasn’t resolved with worthwhile updates. These were the phones that were supposed to signal to people “okay, now we’re serious” and prove the value of Google’s custom Tensor processors. My Pixel 6 really isn’t any more fun to use than my old Pixel 3.
The lack of Google’s post-launch care has taken several different forms. My colleague Allison Johnson thought that the Pixel 5A was a safe but great midrange phone that more people should know about. But instead of going global with broad carrier support, as most manufacturers do these days with phones that they’re excited about, Google released the phone exclusively in the US and Japan and didn’t partner with carriers to boost availability. Unless you’re a Pixel superfan, it’s possible that this phone’s existence went under your radar entirely.
Given that approach, it seems as if Google wants to succeed with hardware on its own terms — and to fail on its own terms, too. Perhaps this strategy stems from Google realizing that it likely won’t ever be in the top spot for many tech hardware categories it participates in. Still, it’s strange to see this seemingly directionless strategy considering there’s proof within Google’s business (Google Photos, search, Chrome, Android, and Workspace, just to name a few) that investing heavily yields success.
If you want one representative example to watch out for, it’s smartwatches. If the biggest pre-I/O rumors are true, Google will unveil its first-ever flagship smartwatch, the Pixel Watch. It’s an interesting time for the device to launch, as the bar couldn’t be lower for Google to re-enter the smartwatch market after years of letting it evaporate. And I can’t help but wonder what might have happened if Google hadn’t left in the first place. It was yet another category that Google initially put some muscle behind — until it didn’t.
Google launched a dedicated smartwatch platform, Android Wear, in 2014 to compete with the Apple Watch. The company got the likes of Samsung, LG, Asus, Motorola, and more onboard to make hardware, each with an interesting spin on design, but each kind of crippled with the same ho-hum software, slow performance, and lousy battery life. Android Wear offered more in the way of options than Apple, but all of those options were, well, not good.
Google continued its software investment in the space, releasing a rebranded Wear OS with more features to turn a new leaf. But the best watches running Google’s new software couldn’t shake those first-gen issues loose — even ones like the LG Watch Style and Sport, which were the flagships meant to carry Wear OS to new heights.
Google’s support slowed down, with fewer major updates and even fewer must-have apps. While a few manufacturers like Fossil and Mobvoi have kept the proverbial torch lit (and, more recently, Samsung with its Wear OS 3-powered Galaxy Watch 4), the platform is not in a great place. So, there’s a lot riding on Google being able to kickstart it — again. But even if the company unveils a promising new product, it’s possible that Google’s biggest chance of success with smartwatches is behind it, as almost all of its OEM partners (aside from Samsung) have given up. Still, I hope that Google provides a similar amount of support for the Pixel Watch as it does with its Pixel phones, for whatever that’s worth.
Regardless of the product, be it hardware or software, this year’s announcements at I/O present an opportunity for Google to start again. That’s the best and worst thing about Google’s strategy: it can’t stop starting over. Despite some ever-present fixtures in its strategy, like Android, its search business, and Google Assistant, there’s little to no logical throughline with its hardware and software. It’s often exciting to see what the company does next, but I’ve learned to doubt Google’s ability to care about its latest products for six months (or even six weeks) after launch. I want to be proven wrong.
At I/O, we’ll see the new products take the stage over. But I’m eager as ever to see if Google recognizes that the initial impact of these gadgets matters less than the long-term support.