At Google I/O, A Glimpse Of A Gadget-Less Future – Forbes
I’ve been writing about technology in a professional capacity since roughly 2005. Back then, “tech” basically meant gadgets to the consumer magazines I worked for, as I wrote about countless little and big black boxes that did one thing well (or, as was often the case, not so well). If you wanted to make phone calls, you got a phone. If you wanted directions, you got a GPS. If you wanted to play video games, you got a gaming device. We all knew “convergence” (a hushed-tone buzzword amongst tech writers of the time talking about the future) was just around the corner, but at this point, add-on features that cribbed from other product categories always felt a bit half-baked and cumbersome. If a device did a lot of things, it likely didn’t do any of them well.
Of course, the times they have a-changed, and we really do have do-it-all devices in the form of iOS and Android smartphones. The importance of baked-in features has largely given way to apps that allow us to shape and craft our phone’s capabilities to our own needs and personalities. You can tell a lot about somebody and their daily routine just by looking at their smartphone home screen.
At the Google I/O conference this week, it was clear that now, almost exactly a decade after the iPhone ushered us into this modern era, we’re in the middle of another great paradigm shift as features and functions and technologies leave the corporal body of the gadget, and increasingly exist and function all around us. Increasingly, the physical gadgets that we do have serve as little more than windows to the cloud, with these far-off data servers serving as the brains for devices that would have once existed as standalone boxes.
Gizmodo rightfully pointed out that the Google I/O keynote’s lack of flashy hardware introductions may have made it seem like a snooze-fest, even if the technology they are creating blows away anything we’ve ever seen before. Part of the problem is that we—the public and the tech press—have become trained to treat hardware as press-worthy product, and software as an incremental update. In my past life as a men’s magazine editor, we needed good-looking devices to photograph and fill our pages. Updates to existing devices simply didn’t fill the bill.
Which is a shame, because “updates to existing devices” are increasingly where the best and most interesting technological advancements are reaching consumers. In the six months or so that I’ve had a Google Home voice-control hub, I’ve seen the device change and grow and add functionality and features, without me ever moving it from my kitchen counter. A few weeks ago, the company announced an update that would allow the device to detect the voices of multiple users, and deliver custom content based on their preferences and calendar schedule. The Google Home itself is just a piece of white plastic with some circuits on the inside. The real gadget is a far-off data center that I will never see nor touch.
Other new cloud-based software updates from companies like Google feel like nothing short of magic. Google Lens, which was announced at I/O, uses image recognition to turn a camera into a search engine: Point your lens at an object, and it tells you everything there is to know about it. This is perhaps the single most impressive thing Google has shown us this year, and it’s actually just a feature update to other products: Google Photos and Google Assistant.
The bottom line: Even as we see fewer and fewer flashy keynotes with marquee gadget releases and buy fewer and fewer standalone gadgets, if you know to look for it, the technology that shapes the world around us will increasingly resemble magic. And just because a device doesn’t do something when you first buy it, don’t write it off completely: It may just be a software update away from changing your life.