Google in, Google out

Call it the Triumph of the Stacks. I attended Google I/O this week, and saw a lot of cool things: but what really hit home for me, at the keynote and the demos and the developer sessions, was just how dominant Google has become, in so many different domains … and, especially, how its only real competition comes from the four other tech behemoths who dominate our industry’s landscape.

Typically, Bruce Sterling saw it coming first, five full years ago:

“The Stacks” […] Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft. These big five American vertically organized silos are re-making the world in their image.

Today the five companies he cited are the five most valuable publicly traded companies on the planet, and practically a software oligopoly. They all make hardware, too, but of course there are many more important hardware companies: Intel, AMD, ARM, Qualcomm, Nvidia, Samsung, Tesla, Taiwan Semiconductor, Hon Hai, et al. When you talk about software, though — you know, the stuff that’s eating the world — then you’re almost certainly, if indirectly, ultimately talking about the Stacks.

Who in fairness are all doing amazing things. (Whether you like them or not, they’re still amazing.) Sundar Pichai mentioned during the I/O keynote that there are now more than two billion active Android devices on Earth. Most organizations are only beginning to think and talk about machine learning; Google has already woven it into a wide range of its products, ranging from little things like Android’s new smart text selection, to semi-automatic photo curation and sharing, to voice recognition and translation, to custom-build Tensor Processing Units providing petaflops of processing power available via Google’s cloud, and to what may be its biggest machine-learning breakthrough yet, coming later this year:

Google has so many tentacles in so many pies that it was a bit mind-numbing to see them all sardined into a single event. (takes a deep breath) Polymer and Angular and AMP and Dart and Flutter and WebAssembly and Instant Apps and Analytics and Fabric. Compute Engine and App Engine and Firebase. Tango and Daydream. TensorFlow and Mobile Vision and Cloud TPUs. Android Phone, Android Wear, Android TV, Android Auto, Android Things, Android Pay. Google Home and Google Assistant and Google Play. And that’s without mentioning Maps, YouTube, Gmail, and Chrome — each of which has a billion-plus users — much less Alphabet’s “Other Bets.”

That list also deliberately elides the Giant Google Fountain Of Money, i.e. the search and advertising engine that still provides 90% of Google’s income. There always seems to be a certain awkward disjoint between that colossal money machine and everything else Google does. “We use deep computer science to solve hard technical problems at scale,” Pichai said at the keynote, with relish. He said almost nothing about the unseemly business of actually making money. He didn’t need to. All of the Stacks seem to devote much more of their high-grade brainpower and executive time to spending their money, rather than making it. Nice work if you can get it.

Remarkable work, too. The most “living in the future” project I saw at I/O was, to my surprise, Project Tango, Google’s augmented-reality initiative, about which I had been skeptical. The image above, of yours truly cavorting with a Tango creation, may make it look like a Pokémon-esque toy … but don’t be fooled. Tango can do a whole host of eye-opening things, like 3D-scanning and rendering your surroundings — on your phone, in real time — or superimposing dynamic virtual objects, like whole wardrobes of clothes, onto fixed ones, like mannequins, again in real time. It’s early days yet, but the possibilities are clearly extraordinary.

It was nice to see Google paying a lot of attention to identifying and mitigating implicit bias in machine-learning models and algorithms; it was nice to see that the crowd was, by tech standards, impressively diverse; it was really excellent to see a panel like this one —

but what I kept coming back to, as I roamed, was the conclusion that Bruce Sterling actually understated his case for the Stacks. They don’t just want to remake the world in their image. They want to remake our individual lives. Each Stack — bar Facebook, for now — offers the same awkward bargain: commit wholly & wholeheartedly to our ecosystem, and we will better your life.

You can use your Google Home to send directions to your Pixel, or to Chromecast a YouTube video to your Android TV, or to order a sandwich seamlessly via the Google Assistant because it already knows your credit-card details, your delivery address, your Gmail address, and your food preferences. Similarly, you can streamline your whole life around the Apple ecosystem, or Amazon’s Prime / Fire TV / Kindle / Echo ecosystem. Microsoft, which increasingly looks like IBM 2: IBMer (which is no bad thing), seems more interested in being your work ecosystem these days; it still offers you a Home Hub / XBox / Cortana combo, though.

On the one hand this surveillance-capitalism data grab (and make no mistake, that’s what it is, at least in part) feels creepy and intrusive in a deeply personal way. On the other you can actually make the compelling, if depressing, case that hey, it’s the 21st century, someone’s going to surveil you, you may as well choose the Stack that you find least untrustworthy, give all your data to them, and rely on them to keep it safe. After all, you know they don’t want to let anyone else have it. It’s valuable.

It would be disingenuous of me not to stress that the majority of Stack employees and executives really and truly want to do the right thing with this data. Apple went to the mat against the FBI for the sake of user privacy. You will never meet a more dedicated, passionate, and influential privacy/safety team than Google’s. Amazon’s single highest corporate value is customer satisfaction, and they’re clearly willing to sacrifice profits for that. Microsoft has learned better than to risk its reputation. Facebook’s CISO, Alex Stamos, is a longtime prominent privacy advocate.

And yet. Like every I/O attendee I received a free Google Home device as part of the I/O experience. (I attended as an engineer, not as press.) But I don’t want one; I’ll be giving mine away. Sorry, Google. It’s not that I mistrust you. It’s just that I don’t want to have to trust any profit-driven megacorporation quite that much. Not Apple, not Amazon, and not even you.