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Three critical questions Google needs to answer after its big I/O conference

Distribution, distribution, distribution.

Google Hosts Its Annual I/O Developers Conference Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

We learned quite a bit this week from Google's three-day developer bonanza about what the internet behemoth sees as the future of tech, of mobile and of itself.

But there was much left unanswered. For one, we don't know when most of the new products — set to propel Google in the emerging fields of artificial intelligence and virtual reality — will arrive.

We laid out the lingering questions for Google's new, industry-altering AI chips earlier. Here are three others to chew on:

How will Google sell its hardware?

While software dominated the show, hardware had its moments. Specifically, Google previewed three coming devices: Home, its entry point for the AI-infused assistant; a VR headset it will make; and a new smartphone division that will build and ship its (much delayed) Project Ara modular phones.

Each is primarily intended as a vehicle for Google's services, but the company certainly wants (and needs) to get them into consumer hands.

Google Hosts Its Annual I/O Developers Conference
How does the Google Home get into your hand?
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Google has never done that last part well. Chromecast, its best-selling hardware, has sold 25 million units, Google shared this week, but is handicapped by a removal from Amazon's store. Those upcoming devices will sit with Chromecast in Google’s fresh hardware unit under former Motorola chief Rick Osterloh. (Those working on the VR headset report jointly to Osterloh and the VR division.)

It's likely that Google will replicate its distribution strategy with Cardboard — give it away for cheap or for free.

Yet sources familiar with Google guessed that Osterloh's hire indicated a potential revival of "Android Silver," the company's abandoned effort to aggressively ship high-end devices to compete with Apple head-on. That would come with an aggressive retail strategy, too.

What's up with Google's messaging strategy?

Inquiring minds want to know. Even minds at Google. (One employee expressed confusion with the company's baffling strategy in a brilliant comic.)

With Allo and Duo, Google now has four separate messaging products. It's a far cry from what most expected: A united front to combat Facebook.

Google said that Hangouts, its chat service, is not going away. But it didn't say if Allo will replace it as one of the pre-installed Android apps. And it didn't say how Allo squares with the native Android Messenger.

In fact, it didn't say much. So I'll take a stab: Messenger will stay distinct, as it's set to launch richer texting services, like Apple's iMessage, with the carriers, sources say. If Allo gets uptake, Google might quietly phase out Hangouts. More likely, it'll convert Hangouts to a beefier enterprise product.

When or how remains to be seen. Also, we don't yet know how Google plans to take the critical part of Allo — the services from its smart assistant therein — to other apps and platforms, which is Google's ultimate goal.

Where does the money come from?

If tinier screens hobbled Google's ad juggernaut, wait until the screens disappear.

Bloomberg handled this nicely, asking how the transition from mobile to voice search and augmented reality will dent Google's business. That real dent is years away.

But you could interpret each new Google thing as a long-term hedge, an attempt to keep search — and the valuable transactions around it — from moving to Amazon, Facebook and a litany of other bots. Google's new tools for Android developers (less sexy, but critical) were all designed to make it more compelling to spend money with Google. Same for VR, although the money-making method there is hazy for now.

At I/O, Google's search and AI boss addressed the question tentatively. He hinted at a model for future products built around licensing the tech and tying it to cloud services.

It was vague. But I didn't expect an immediate answer, partly because I think Google does not yet know it.

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