As I roamed the three floors of Moscone West Center San Francisco, the venue of I/O, going in and out of sand box talks, sessions, hang out spaces, talking to fellow attendees and participating Google employees, two things stood out to me. One, Google did not hold back in making arrangements for this conference and second, though subtly, the conference was favoring a select group of attendees: young (18-35), smart (looks and behavior both), owning latest devices and impressionable.
Then there were discounts rendered, invitations extended and free tickets awarded. For example brownie points to Google for ensuring better female participation by arranging a special Code Jam to I/O for women and announcing that the top 100 scorers will get a free ticket to the conference and also a 500 USD gift card to cover for travel and accommodations. This was a generous offer and I myself got to the conference by winning a ticket through the Code Jam.
Also, free are the Code Labs (hands-on workshops) that gives you an opportunity for self-paced training on latest tools and services offered by Google. This year the workshops showcased Google mobile, wearable, and Cloud technologies. All devices and paid services (like Google Cloud etc) were provided to workshop attendees for extended usage. Help was available, the instructions were detailed and well written.
The conference pays for itself with the services rendered and gifts offered.
Glory to those … who attend the keynote on-site! K
What left me uneasy, however, was the way the keynote was marketed and rolled out. This year, the seating for keynote was limited and assigned in a first come/register first serve basis. For this, the conference opened pre-registration on the 27th (a day before the conference formally began). And then, attending the keynote on site was promoted aggressively, not for its technical merit, curiosity or content, but rather as a matter of prestige for the young attendees. The conference website, the welcome and instruction emails, the official FAQs and even the unofficial help tips all promoted attendance on as THE status symbol!
I could not find any good reason why the alternates like viewing it on screen in other rooms at the Moscone Center (in case the primary room is full), or even watching it from the comfort of your home/hotel while it was being live streamed were not just as good.
Keynote Speech & Presenters: The rares, the medium rares and the well dones!
Mr. Sundar Pichai (Senior Vice President, Products) started the keynote by recognizing this to be the moment of mobile and smart phone revolution, with over 600 million people adopting a smart phone for the first time in the last year. He introduced the upcoming Android platform release, M, the "most polished Android release to date” (to be released in Q3). And no we do not know what the version number and name of “M” will be as yet!
Next came the presentation on M preview by Dave Burke (Vice President, Engineering), the best presenter of the lot! He covered the many features succinctly and credibly. The highlights of the new Android release are new permissions model (user involvement is deferred until it is needed), Chrome custom tabs (linking from an app to web by inserting web views directly in the apps, giving users full power of Chrome without having to force them to switch to a browser), App linking (verified links redirected to apps, rather than to a browser), Android Pay (mobile payment using NFC and Host Card Emulation for tap-to-pay services), Fingerprint support (new API’s for developers to use in their apps) and Power & Charging (Doze feature using motion detection, 2x longer battery life)
Another favorite of mine was Google Photos, presented by Anil Sabharwal (Director, Photos). It is a new user experience focused on a single home for all photos and videos, effective organization and easy sharing. The pinch gesture and sharable links is certainly something that has a lot of utility. The presentation was engaging, memorable and very well organized.
Google also announced its entry into the market of Internet of Things. The company is working on building a comprehensive end-to-end solution that extends the Android platform to the many connected devices, so they are easy to set up and work seamlessly with each other and with user’s smartphone. Project Brillo is the underlying operating system built for Internet of Things, derived from Android coming in Q3 and Weave is the communications layer and set of protocols that will allow Brillo devices to talk, coming in Q4.
Then there were the not so strong presentations. Android Wear, completely focused on watches, was ineffectual. Google Translate mobile app presentation was a snooze, so was the one on Google Play. Presentation on Google Now, could have been interesting, but was weighed down by the presenter’s extra focus on being funny when she was not. Then came the under prepared. The presenter talking about developer platform update was so devoid of enthusiasm and clarity that even the exciting announcements, like full editing and debugging support for c++ in Android Studio 1.3, almost went unnoticed.
The Tech Shaming of ‘Divergents’ L
So if you are attending Google I/O and do not have the latest smart phone (not just a smart phone) or the latest generation laptop, be forewarned! You are setting yourself up to be tech-shamed.
I do not use a smart phone, primarily because I use my laptop 8-10 hours a day and am resolved on keeping the remaining time connectivity free. However it was a ‘divergent’ behavior in the I/O world. The conference did not hand out any printed guides or schedules because it was ‘expected’ that you will be using your smartphone to access the ‘planning app’ that arranges and keeps track of your agenda. I did the morbid mistake of asking one of the conference staff the venue of a talk to which he replied that I should check my planning app. When told that I do not own one, the look I got made me feel like Pumba.
[Pumba:] And, oh, the shame
[Timon:] He was ashamed
[Pumba:] Thought-a changin' my name
[Timon:] Oh, what's in a name
Even more fun, the conference internet service which was only available for 5G supported devices! At one time I was sitting near the help desk eating my sandwich as I witnessed a few people with older phones or laptops going to the help/information desk stating that the WiFi Network io2015 is not appearing in their list of networks. They were, sweetly, told that ‘the internet is only made available for the latest devices, we are sure you will get an updated one soon’. Well they could have sung instead:
Too old, too old, he's too old to cut the mustard anymore
He's getting' too old, he's done, got too old
He's too old to cut the mustard anymore
The Hoity-toity nicety K
What I found most disconcerting was the condescending undertone, from keynote to the last session, from the help desk attendant to the Senior Vice President of Products, that the attendees/participants were not treated as partners but mostly as unwitting users. The focus was on “how we are helping you” rather than “how we can help each other” to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful (Google’s core mission).
For example, Mr. Pichai’s keynote ending words “we get to share what we have been up to in the last year and all you developers get to go out and build amazing things on top of what we do” sets a precedence. The only exception to this behavior was Clay Bavor (VP Product Management at Google) who talked about the work on immersive computing experience and ended his presentation with a more humble and inviting, “we hope you come explore with us”.
The Astounding Ambiance J
Switching back to some of the great things about I/O. The arrangements were immaculate, exactly what we would have expected from Google, even better. The food was very good, the place was spotless, the resting/hangout spaces were creative, colorful and fun and the parties were spectacular.
The seduction of ‘tech culture for the young’ was at its best at the after-hours party on the 28th at Yerba Buena Gardens. The place was filled with stalls offering scrumptious food (sandwiches, hotdogs, wings, noodles, salads, ribs, ice creams, you name it) and choice beverage (both alcoholic and non-alcoholic) stalls, fun activities like photo ops and karaoke with live music and bands playing for the entire duration.
The Women Techmakers Dinner
My favorite part of the conference has to be the complimentary dinners hosted by The Women Techmakers team in San Francisco on May 27th to build a community for women attending I/O. The team also put together an invite-only Slack group to keep the community of women together during and after the conference. They completed the monumental job of reaching out to each and every female participant, getting those interested onto the Slack platform, and arranging group dinners at several venues in San Francisco. I went to the one at Town Hall. The female tech energy was incredible, the conversations invigorating, the friendships formed … priceless!
All in all, I had a good time at the conference, made awesome new friends, got great pictures, learned from the code labs and enjoyed the ambience created by Google. I will certainly attend next year, with my beloved dumb phone, though I would remember to bring in a printed sheet of agenda. I will return though with the hope that the organizers will make a conscious effort to focus more on building collaborations and less on establishing one side as the gracious givers and the rest as grateful receivers.
Read more about Bushra on our Global Tech Leaders page.