The similarity of differences.

Google held its annual I/O conference recently, and unveiled some extremely interesting developments for the year to come. Focused ever more heavily on data processing and machine learning, its AI initiatives are being inserted into many of their products, and creating some new ones in the process.

One of the most notable new additions is Google’s Assistant, which replaces the Google Now functionality. Available throughout Android and new products like Google Home, Assistant will use context to present you with relevant information across many apps and services, allowing users to have a more fluid conversation with their devices, using the natural language patterns they’d ordinarily use talking to people as opposed to specific syntax queries.

Quite honestly, it’s very impressive stuff. I watched the I/O keynote in its entirety this week when I found some time, and I was blown away by some of the things Google is doing, right now, today.

I know a lot of people who enjoy it and use it daily, but for me, Siri has been inconsistent at best, and infuriating at worst. I can attempt the same, simple operations on different days and get wildly different results. Features have been added over the past few years, and on paper, it looks terrific. In reality, it is a crapshoot as to whether or not the small task I need to perform will actually get done in any possible way that would be faster than me using my phone manually. Using it on the Apple Watch is an abject nightmare. Your experience with it might have been nothing but unicorns prancing through fields of wishes and dreams, but it’s a broken system as far as I’m concerned.

Consistency is a huge part of good user experience. If, as a user, I have doubt, or reservations of any kind that the thing I need to do isn’t going to happen the way I expect or want it to, that creates friction. Friction eventually erodes trust, and without trust, I cease to be able to do the things I want in the way I want them done. I’ll find another way.

Siri has long struggled to mature under Apple’s development since the technology was acquired several years ago. I’m sure there are many, many good people working on it, and it pains me to feel the way I do and say these things, but it is simply not something I enjoy using–or use at all for that matter, anymore. There’s been quite a bit of talk lately about Apple’s ability to deliver compellingly (and consistently) in this new, shifting, data-driven landscape. Now famously having taken a stance in favor of localizing personal data to the device and protecting it in every way possible (a stance I am quite fond of), lots of questions as to whether or not the company is even prepared to meet this challenge–one that Google has been tackling for many years now–have arisen.

So back to Google.

They’re pushing forward with machine learning, using massive amounts of collected data–data that Apple has said it won’t take and doesn’t want–to create entirely new user experiences. The more it works, the smarter it gets. In the aggregate, all this data and use strengthens the product and allows users to do more things. It’s not an app, it’s an entire layer within the OS, working around what you’re doing with your device, affording you additional skills and options.

Earlier this week, prior to watching the keynote, I was having a conversation with some friends in Slack. Using my high-level glances at what Google was doing, and without really thinking too deeply into it, I said the following:

AI/bots may or may not be the future of computing. But data analysis and the kind of power Google has with those capabilities most definitely is.

That’s where Apple can’t catch up. This isn’t about phones. This is about what software is becoming and where the things we do with software go.

And I talked at length about why I thought this was true. I wasn’t spouting apocalyptic proclamations about Apple; they could set fire to piles of money today, every day for months, and still be in better shape than almost any other company on Earth. But I did express some real concern for the platform I enjoy and prefer not being able to keep up, and how the tradeoffs Apple is making to keep users safe (good) could potentially preclude it from delivering more compelling and timely experiences that people will come to expect from their devices (not so good).

Then I watched the keynote.

What became apparent to me, seeing everything myself and hearing the Google presenters talk about the technology, was that Google and Apple aren’t even competing in the same space anymore. Both companies are engaged in selling mobile devices, but they’re coming at personal technology from such different perspectives, they’re almost not even comparable. A few years ago, it seemed like the companies were at odds on the same field. But they’re not even playing the same sport.

If we’re going to distill it down to a focused, philosophical difference, I think it might look like this.

Apple’s world centers on hardware. It designs and builds amazing and transformative devices. Software is paired with hardware, and the integration points are tight, able to take advantage of hardware optimizations and tuning in crazy ways. Apple’s general perspective today on data is that they don’t want to know certain things, and want to obfuscate others. It’s a very individual-centered and -minded approach.

Google is all about that data. It eschewed hardware for its mobile OS initially, insisting that other companies provide it, following the Microsoft model of the recent past. It’s edged toward unifying software and hardware in a way similar to what Apple does, but doesn’t seem to be interested in pursuing that to its logical end. Hardware is a vehicle for software and data, passing in and out.

Apple and Google, in the eyes of the general public and many tech bloggers, have been at war for many years, and in vague terms, both companies sell fancy mobile phones. But the implications of those businesses are so far beyond the face value of what we see. And what I’ve realized is that they aren’t zero-sum or mutually exclusive. What I’ve come to understand is that the more the two companies seem to have been battling, the more the individual directions of each company become unassailably concrete.

Let’s use healthcare as an example, since that’s been the focus of segments in both companies’ recent presentations.

Apple: ResearchKit and CareKit. Centered around individuals, reporting personal data. Assembling tons of it, and allowing for better personal follow through on long-term treatment, and more individualized reporting for research purposes. Gathering of this data is done through traditional channels, but by allowing users to have agency in these processes, Apple affords people the ability to contribute to a large data set, but safely remain an identifiable component variable.

Google: machine learning to aggregate data against the treatment of extremely difficult ailments (diabetic retinopathy was the example presented in the keynote). Very few doctors can detect it accurately, and it’s very hard to do right/well. And this small number of doctors can’t be everywhere at once. But put enough data into a machine and it can pattern match the very intricate details–perhaps better than people, and everywhere at once (since people can only be in one place at a time). Throw incomprehensible amounts of information at an enormous amount of computing power and basically brute-force a treatment protocol that functions better than humans ever could.

Two fundamentally different approaches, two similar goals.

It’s a very interesting and important time in personal technology. Data moves through our lives like air. We want to protect it (some of us, anyway), but we want the value that sharing it can provide us. We want the future we were promised in our childhoods, but the changes we find occurring around us can be discomforting. This kind of change is everywhere, and it continues to move like perpetual motion, unstoppable. It’s beautiful and frightening. But it is inevitable.

I’m delighted that Apple wants to protect my information and is loudly standing up to the degradation of that idea in public and within the legal system. They may even be able to pull off the things I’m hoping for, without the compromises I’m looking to avoid. I’m also really excited to see what Google can actually do to advance the entire industry and provide new ways of solving serious problems. I think there are a lot of ways that these two approaches can exist together, in complementary layers, that can give us more of the future we’d hoped for. I’ve been becoming increasingly jaded about technology in the past few years, but I feel like I’ve been shown possibilities this week that may set me back in the other direction. Of course, there’s still time for things to go horribly awry.

The world will create a narrative of opposition because our nature is to set forces against one another. I no longer see this as a competition. And along with things like VR (which I have become obsessed with, in terms of non-gaming applications), for the first time in a while, I have real hope for things beyond my whatever my next phone might be.

That feels really good.

Omniscience and oblivion.

Recently I was asked about where I think user experience is headed. After giving it some thought, I was able to distill my idea about it down to a fairly concise dichotomy. Obviously it centers on mobile computing, and the two most interesting parts of it (to me) are:

  1. Presenting information to the user in a contextually relevant way without much (if any) external interaction on his/her part
  2. Increasing security and/or ensuring that the loop for transactional activities is closed, in the face of continued compromises of sensitive financial information

There are two products that exemplify these goals in the market right now, supplied by two companies whose philosophies couldn’t be more divergent, but yet are intertwined: Google Now and Apple Pay. Let’s get one thing out of the way quickly–this is not going to be a “who’s better” post. It’s simply an examination of two different approaches to solving two big problems for users. The biggest difference being the diametrically opposed underpinnings of how the two technologies work.

Google Now’s promise is that if you hook your life into Google’s services, the massive intelligence behind those services will parse as much as possible from what you provide and surface information to you at the most relevant times possible, without you even having to lift a finger. Apple Pay creates a bubble of security around each purchase that you conduct with it, allowing for unique financial transactions, hiding your identity and information from merchants and potential data theft. Both are amazing in their own ways, and both edge ever closer to the fuzzy, nostalgic ideals that the World’s Fairs of yesteryear told us the future would bring.

The difference is that one service wants to know every single thing it possibly can about you to build a world of information around your activities, and the other wants to purposefully know as little as possible about you so that it can obfuscate the sensitive information that passes between two parties during a financial transaction.

I’m enthralled by both of these worlds, but to date, I’ve only embraced one of them. As we continue into the future, and more of our personal information–even the most innocuous bits–exist on the servers of other companies, I become wary of how and when it will be used. I’m not kept up at night thinking about it, but I’m still far more comfortable using Apple Pay for a purchase than dumping everything about myself into Google so I can find out if my flight is late, or how long it will take me to get home. Those examples are rather trite, but it illustrates my point: the two aspects of software that I’ve outlined are both insanely cool and interesting to me, but the overall value I can derive today is far higher with Apple Pay. More importantly, I’m left wondering how I can enjoy the benefits of something like Google Now without sacrificing my feelings about my data. I just don’t know if it’s possible, and I may change my mind about how I feel down the road.

I’ve been fascinated with technology throughout my entire life. It’s a source of creativity and consternation. Amazement and horror. It always has been and always will be a series of trade-offs and opposing forces. I think as we try to solve more of our problems in these new ways, the two ends of the spectrum get pulled closer together, and I’m not sure how that makes me feel. I’m along for the ride, though, until I pull the ripcord and go live on a beach in blissful, ignorant solitude. Until then, my fingerprint is my passport. Verify me.

Delight and Disappointment

The merging of information with context is extremely powerful and portends the next wave of personal productivity for many of us. Google introduced actionable notifications to Android with Jelly Bean, allowing users to quickly take steps based on the type of notification coming in. It’s a cool way to have information presented to you in a way that makes sense and doesn’t require much effort to interact with. It was also something that iOS sorely lacked for a long time, and that still isn’t implemented as well as it could be (pretty much only works with a few built-in apps).

But Google is continuing to move quickly down this path. Whereas Apple usually takes an established idea and refines it until its value is perfectly clear and well-executed (mostly), Google is forging ahead with vigor. Google Now was the next step, bridging your device’s knowledge about your location in reality with the information contained in your Google account and its apps. Calendar events, flight information, travel, traffic, and a host of other useful items get surfaced to you when it makes sense. Leaving work? Here’s how long it’ll probably take to get home. Google achieves this by leveraging everything it can learn about you and your patterns to provide a far more compelling experience informationally and contextually than Siri can. Siri has personality, but Google Now feels like it’s thinking ahead for you, the way someone hired to assist you would.

Now it appears that context and intent will be utilized in new ways in Android 4.4 KitKat. Reading this Ars Technica article made me stop and actually think about where this is headed. The gist of it is that the main Android home screen launcher experience has been embedded into the Google Search app structure, which converts actions previously taken in the launcher to jump to other apps/experiences into collectible, applicable data points. This allows Android to present other content, make intelligent links to apps on your phone based on searches you perform, and infer even more about usage patterns and the way you use your information. A smart phone that actually feels smart, working for you, when you want it to, giving you not just more information, but the right information.

Herein lies the issue for me. My whole life I’ve been waiting for technology to catch up with my fantasies. And we’re standing on the precipice of that very convergence, and I don’t know how to feel about it. I know why I’m conflicted though, and it comes down to a sense of lost faith in the only company that’s poised to actually make these kinds of things happen – to bring the future that much closer to now.

In the early to mid 2000s, I was positively smitten with Google. It was a company that strove to enrich the way technology touched our lives. A bunch of engineers and web nerds, assembled together to make great things with a touch of geeky personality. Google Labs was a hotbed of interesting stuff. Working at Google seemed like it would just about be the greatest thing ever. It was always an advertising company, and we knew that, but the actions taken and the message regarding the position of the company at that time felt genuine: “Don’t be evil”.

In the intervening years between then and now, that phrase barely belongs on a bumper sticker, let alone echoed as the charter of a behemoth whose once clear path has become clouded. We’ve seen it happen as the Google grew and changed. There have been patent battles, privacy missteps, an alliance to unite wireless in the name of consumers, and the failure to make it so, since a deal with Verizon seemed like a better idea at the time. There’s been the trumpeting of open source values, and over time it’s been watered down to a catch phrase more rooted in zealotry than truth. The promise of the open and free internet, once a guiding principle for the company, has been abandoned since they’re now a provider of those same services. And those are the serious issues; Google can’t even keep simple promises anymore.

And yet in spite of all this, they are the most interesting technology company in the world right now. Android is an amazing mobile operating system, well past its ugly teenage years and has matured into something compelling and full of potential. Google’s web services are simply beyond anything else offered at the consumer level. Despite my personal feelings on the invasive nature of Google+, there’s a unity to the company’s brand offerings that didn’t exist before, and that’s appealing too. The other futurist initiatives underway speak to the heart of the innovation exploding at the company. Sometimes it really feels like the old Google is still in there somewhere. And there are individuals who I believe still are fighting for that, and embody those ideals, and for them I’m grateful.

But I can’t trust that it is. Google stood for something and it turned its back on its core values to become a different kind of company. It’ll say that it’s never going to do anything nefarious with my information, and I’ll have full control over it, but Google has flipped its position on the exact kinds of things I care about in the past – what would make this any different? Information is the new currency, and Google is a drunken monarch with an oral tradition of good intentions and a written history of falling short on its promises. You’re beholden to your shareholders once you go public, and the world is full of examples of corporations changing over time for exactly those reasons. But if you’re going to serve that master, you don’t get to play the role of high-minded philosopher too. The bottom line is that Google wants to be good, but it can’t help but be evil in the process. And that dichotomy doesn’t leave me with much confidence in its vision of our future.