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With Its New Mobile Features, Google Returns to Form (And Buries Its Flops)

Google advances on its goal to take its Web dominance to mobile.

Google

Google has grown up.

At least that was a popular verdict from Day One of I/O on Thursday — that the major presentation lacked Google’s renowned childlike weirdness. That it was dull. Unlike prior years, there were no new device giveaways or skydiving, Glass-wearing founders. (Although Day Two brought some magic.)

But the three critical new products — a photos app, a VR platform and a revamped Google Now — reflect a certain business maturity, as Google awakens to its threats on mobile and moves to attain the same centrality to our digital lives it had on the desktop. To do so, Google is falling back on its core DNA as an artificial intelligence company.

Take Photos. By far, the most admired (though far from surprising) debut at I/O, it’s a standalone app that stores and organizes photos the way Gmail does for email. It was built with all of Google’s machine-learning sorcery — for photos snapped before geotagging became widespread, for instance, the app recognizes landmarks and adds the tags itself.

It’s also a tacit admission that Google+, where the photos feature previously lived, flopped. Google+ was a me-too product, an attempt to stop Facebook from running ahead with demographic data. Facebook ran ahead. With Photos, Google is taking an approach that is distinctly its own. It’s about search.

“Google Photos is that private, sacred, safe space that all of my memories can live without compromise or agenda,” Bradley Horowitz explained during an I/O press session. “And that explains why we had to give it its own seat at the table.”

Horowitz, a Google+ veteran, took the helm in March and now oversees Streams, Photos and Sharing, which includes Google News. He spoke optimistically about the next chapter of Google+, but didn’t say what it would be. It could suffer the same fate as Glass, which Google shelved and handed to Nest Lab’s Tony Fadell to reinvent.

For its part, Glass was entirely absent from I/O. Its replacement — an upgraded Cardboard headset and new virtual reality platform, Jump — shows a transition in a different direction than Photos. Google isn’t pioneering a new form of augmented reality; it’s playing catch-up. Cardboard is a uniquely inexpensive version of the VR devices now available, but it is a version nonetheless. And with its YouTube incorporation, Google is staving off challenges from rivals like Facebook’s Oculus and a wave of startups. With Jump, Google makes sure that YouTube is relevant in VR.

Finally, Google’s biggest new treats for app developers are the clearest signal Google is taking threats from Apple, Facebook and others more seriously.

Google’s core business faces an existential crisis from the proliferation of apps. Google’s solution is to obliterate the divide between apps and the Web. Much as it was founded to index the entire Web, now Google is trying the same for apps. At I/O, it expanded app indexing functions and brought deep-linking capabilities to iOS. It went even further with Now on Tap.

In short, the new feature is Google’s Trojan horse on mobile search. It brings the personal assistant technology on Android — a repository for all information on Google, weaved in with a users’ personal settings and preferences — to the front and center of the entire mobile experience. With the latest version of Android, it will be on call inside the range of apps and mobile experiences on smartphones.

It was created to solve the same hurdle as the initial 10 links, Jason Spero, who runs performance media for Google, told Re/code. “The problem statement hasn’t changed,” he said.

And, like search, the feature places Google as the gatekeeper on mobile: Should it get widespread adoption, other sites and apps would have to fight for the real estate. That’s an approach consistent with Google’s recent mobile moves to edge into in markets on commerce.

However, Google pledged it would not wall off Now. Currently, it has 110 partners — including Lyft, Airbnb and Spotify — that can live within Cards. “We have every intent on opening it up to everyone,” Spero said.

Another I/O update, which flew under the radar, revealed Google’s competitive streak. Universal App Campaign is a tool for app developers allowing them to run and measure ads with several companies that lay the ad piping, including China’s Tencent. It’s also, notably, an affront to Facebook. The social network requires app developers to run only through their own walled network; Google is pitching itself as the open alternative.

Yet with both Photos and Now on Tap, Google swore it was not considering revenue. Users must come first, goes the company line. But an ad model, particularly for Now, is not hard to see. If Google can get Now cards in front of every Android owner, sponsored cards could fetch top dollars.

At I/O, Google did not talk of such things. Instead, its executives harped on the technology. If there was a thread throughout the conference, it was Google’s work on machine learning. At the end of his I/O keynote, SVP Sundar Pichai briefly touched on two of Google’s moonshots — its self-driving car and Project Loon. These aren’t usually in his domain. While he didn’t share new information, he did tie the ambitious initiatives back to the flurry of developer tools unveiled on stage.

He pointed to an image of Google’s prototype autonomous vehicle: “That is all the machine learning I talked about earlier,” he said giddily.

More childlike wonder arrived later. Around eight at night, at Google’s party for attendees, the light sabers came out.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.

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