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Cut From Google I/O: What Didn’t Make the Stage

Rob Pegoraro
Contributing Editor
Yahoo Tech

Photo: Rob Pegoraro/Yahoo Tech

SAN FRANCISCO — A two-plus-hour tech company keynote like the one that opened Google’s I/O conference here can be a great way to learn a company’s priorities. Especially if you pay attention to the things that go unsaid.

Here’s what we expected to learn about at this year’s Google I/O conference keynote on Thursday, but didn’t.

Google+

Google’s not-even-4-years-old venture into social networking, barely mentioned during last year’s I/O keynote, might as well have spent the morning adrift on an ice floe. G+ was present by way of omission: The new Google Photos service takes the photo-editing and backup tools that were introduced in Google+, but no longer requires that you have a G+ profile.

(Fearless forecast: The impressive facial-recognition technology shown off in an onstage demo will yield a privacy freakout within one month.)

About two hours after the keynote, a little more clarity came from Bradley Horowitz, Google’s vice president for photos and streams. “Google+ will be changing,” he told a roomful of journalists. “There’s a renaissance in the thinking of what Google+ is and what it’s for.” By that, we think he means it seems to work best as a way to connect people with similar interests.

Google Glass

Less than three years ago. Google demonstrated the capabilities of its Web-connected Glass eyewear by using it to livestream a wingsuit skydive onto the roof of the Moscone Center here. This time around, I have to imagine that anybody coming onstage wearing Glass would have been greeted with a trapdoor opening below them. And yet: I’ve still seen a fair amount of I/O attendees attired with Google’s cybernetic eyewear, and I’ve heard enough serious reasons to use its hands-free search capabilities in various professional scenarios.

But on stage, zip.

Nexus devices

I knew not to expect much news about Google’s next venture into Android hardware designed to its specifications, considering that last year’s crop of Nexus devices, including the ginormous Nexus 6 smartphone, only shipped in November. But all the attention that Google devoted to its efforts to bring Android to other markets — in particular, the Android One program introduced last year to get high-quality, low-cost phones into developing countries — made the silence about the Nexus program (and the now-expired “Play Edition” program to sell other companies’ flagship phones with stock Android software) a little awkward.

Google Fiber

In a similar way, while we heard (briefly) about Google’s “Project Loon” effort to provide Internet access via balloons spending long sojourns in the stratosphere, I/O attendees heard zip about Google Fiber in the U.S. Maybe I should regard that as an understated bit of honesty: For all the coverage Google Fiber gets, that gigabit service makes far less difference to most people’s Internet access in the U.S. than most minor tweaks to Comcast or Verizon’s services.

Google’s upcoming Project Fi wireless service — which back in March, Google senior vice president of products Sundar Pichai classified as an experiment akin to Nexus phones — also didn’t make the cut for any onstage spotlight today.

Government and society

In the U.S., law-enforcement types don’t appreciate the push by Google (and Apple!) to encrypt mobile devices against snooping attempts by government and anybody else. In the European Union, regulators want Google to clean up people’s search results and fix newspapers’ business-model problems. And Google’s outsized role in Web services and mobile software has made it an inextricable part of the net-neutrality debate.

Maybe any one of those topics would amount to too much politics in a product- and developer-focused event like this. But two years ago, Google co-founder Larry Page took the stage to muse at length about how maybe Google should have a corner of the world in which it could experiment free of laws.

It would have been interesting to hear his latest thoughts about the intersection of his company and society at large — even if it wouldn’t then provoke a wonderful parody like Mat Honan’s “Google Island” post for Wired. But we’ll just have to wait for that until next year’s I/O. Or longer…

Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.