Google Puts the Smartphone in Control of All Your Digital Toys

By Mike Elgan  |  Posted 2014-06-30
Google I/O

Google Puts the Smartphone in Control of All Your Digital Toys

The post-PC world isn't a single world, but two worlds as it turns out.

There's the Apple version of the post-PC world. And then there's the Google version.

We didn't know about Google's version until the company unveiled it at Google I/O developers conference last week.

The Apple version of the post-PC world is one in which non-PC devices like smartphones and tablets are more popular and more important than more powerful PCs. In Steve Jobs' words, it's a world in which cars (non-PCs) share the road with trucks (PCs).

The Google version isn't just about popularity or importance, but about who's in charge. Google has made the smartphone the centerpiece and the control tower for the post-PC world.

Google announced a very wide range of new products, initiatives and other goodies at the conference. But what stood out very starkly, and which surprised attendees, was the degree to which Google had suddenly elevated the smartphone to the central controlling device for all other devices. Here are some examples.

The smartphone controls your watch. The star of the show was clearly Android Wear, Google's operating system for wearable devices. For now, it's a smartwatch platform. But Google executives have said that over time it will be for many types of wearable computers.

What became clear at Google I/O is that the Android Wear smartwatch is nothing more than a display interface for an app running on a smartphone. The same is true for smartphone notifications, smartphone messaging, smartphone email and smartphone location.

In other words, the smartphone is acting like "the computer," and the Android Wear smartwatch is acting like a peripheral device to that computer.

The smartphone controls your TV. Google TV, the company's previous attempt to control the living room, died a slow death in recent years. It's telling that the company's latest attempt, called Android TV, is named after the smartphone OS, not the company. Android TV is all about the smartphone.

For example, you can push content from your smartphone to an Android TV-powered set as if it were a Chromecast. You can also simply mirror what's happening on your smartphone onto the TV.

Any Android phone (or any Android Wear smartwatch) can function as a remote-control device.

What's interesting is that, as with the now-defunct Google TV, an Android TV is technology built into the set itself. But without the smartphone control, it's a completely uninteresting product. Phone centrism is what delivers its promise.

The smartphone controls your car dashboard. As the rumors suggested, Google's big push into the in-car entertainment system is called Android Auto (again, named after the smartphone OS).

Android Auto is completely and directly controlled by an Android smartphone. (The connection is so direct that it's weirdly not even wireless; you have to physically plug the phone into the dashboard.)

Google Puts the Smartphone in Control of All Your Digital Toys

In theory, Android Auto is a lot like Android Wear in the sense that the dash screen and interface is really an interface optimized for the dashboard for interacting with the phone. It's got a few, simple, widely spaced buttons and a voice interface designed to enable you to play music and send messages without getting distracted and crashing the car.

As with Android TV, it's this smartphone centrism that makes the offering compelling. It's also interesting to note that Apple's in-dash system, which is called Apple CarPlay, also puts the smartphone in control and that's what compelling about that product, as well.

The smartphone controls your fitness sensors. Google announced its Google Fit for Android program, which is a set of APIs for app developers that enable third-party fitness monitors to all talk to apps on your smartphone.

In the past, most fitness-sensor applications—including those running as apps on smartphones—ran in the cloud. This has been changing for some time, with smartphones becoming more central. But with Google Fit, that smartphone centrism is locked in.

The smartphone even conquers your Chromebook. Google demonstrated the Chrome OS' future capability to run some Android apps.

What that means from a developer perspective is that Android development will get you not only on the world's most widely used operating system ever, but also on Google's Chromebooks, which is slowly gaining traction in schools, enterprises and elsewhere.

Google demonstrated the Android versions of Evernote, Flipboard and Vine running on a Chromebook.

The phone also acts as an authentication device for Chromebooks. If the laptop detects your authorized Android phone within range, you don't have to enter your username and password. It authenticates you automatically.

And like Android Wear smartwatches, Chromebooks will soon display Android smartphone notifications, including notifications about the state of your phone's battery.

What Does It All Mean?

So now we have two conflicting models for the post-PC world. Ironically, the Apple model is somewhat cloud-centric with all devices, except for Apple's CarPlay and upcoming iWatch, essentially equal and synchronizing through iCloud.

And then we have the Google version, which is the smartphone in control of everything.

Over time, I believe Apple's model will come to resemble Google's and that future Apple TVs, future home automation applications, and even future desktop and laptop computers will become increasingly controllable by and subservient to the phone in your pocket.

Welcome to the post-PC world. It's the smartphone's world now.

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