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What to look for from Google IO confab

In this May 11 2011 file phoattendees chGoogle IO Developers Conference San Francisco. Google opens this year's conference Wednesday. AP

In this May 11, 2011 file photo, attendees chat at the Google IO Developers Conference in San Francisco. Google opens this year's conference Wednesday. AP file photo

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Updated: July 28, 2012 6:25AM

May and June have turned into the tech world’s Fashion Week. Every major player rents out a ballroom (or moves the tables and salad bars out of their HQ’s cafetorium for a day) and spends 45 to 90 minutes laying out their strategies for the coming year. Consumers, developers, and the press get the full dog and pony show.

Wednesday is the opening day of the Google IO developers’ conference. It’s Google’s turn on the stage (or in the barrel, depending how you look at it). And they’re in an interesting spot here in 2012. Android is the most popular phone OS in the country, by a healthy stretch. Moreover, Android phones have never been more successful. The 2012 crop of phones, running Android 4.0, is every bit as good as an iPhone, albeit with different strengths and weaknesses.

But their tablet business is terrible and unless they try something new, it’s definitely about to get worse. There are far more Android-powered tablets in the field than a deep search of coffeeshops and airport lounges would indicate — even if we eliminate devices like the Kindle Fire, which (to rehabilitate a horrible acronym) are Android Tablets In Name Only. Still, the library of tablet-optimized apps is practically negligible.

As a tablet OS, Android has made such a tiny dent in the landscape that it’s on the same footing as a competing tablet that’s just launching this year. And holy cats: Microsoft is launching two new tablets of their own and both of them are running the most popular OS in the world at their cores. If Google doesn’t pull the god-damnedest rabbit out of its hat during one of their two keynotes, it’s going to be time to wonder if Android will ever be of any value whatsoever to tablet users.

Early rumors indicate that there’s going to be at least something cute and fluffy with a wibbly pink nosie hiding behind the curtains. Last year, Google acknowledged that they’re working on a tablet of their own. It appears that Google will roll out their own 7” tablet, powered by the latest version of Android and built by ASUS. ASUS excels at creating good hardware at low prices.

If the price of this thing is around $200, it could change the balance of power. The Kindle Fire isn’t a runaway success, but it’s unquestionably a success. There’s clearly a market for a well-built tablet that’s much more affordable than the $499 iPad (or even the $399, previous-generation iPad 2).

Despite Apple’s utter dominance of the consumer tablet space, it’s hard to draw many conclusions about what consumers actually want. The price of the iPad is an obvious stumbling block for many, as is the size, which requires a bag. 7” is just small enough to be pocketable or purse-able. And many of the key entertainment apps that consumers associate with the iPad (like ebook and newsreaders, and streaming video apps) are already available for small Android tablets. Do consumers like the iPad because it’s a more attractive device than a $500 notebook? If so, any 7” competitor without that awesome library of apps will struggle. Do they like it just because they want a media touchpad device so badly that they’re willing to spend more than they’d like for something that’s larger than they consider convenient? If so, the door is open.

That’s not to say Google still won’t have problems. Developers often have great problems supporting Android, due to the great variety of hardware. Flipboard is one of the ten most significant iPad apps ever released. A version has arrived for Android phones, but the company is still in a “wait and see” mode on Android tablets. Many of those qualms might disappear with the appearance of a single, unifying platform. You can’t get HBO GO for just any Android tablet, but sure, the Kindle Fire was a big enough target to merit its own specific build.

Which points out another big problem that Google might choose to address: the scattershot attitudes that phone carriers take regarding Android OS updates. If you have an iPhone, you know that you can install iOS 6.0 on the day that Apple releases it. Google might release Android 4.1 tomorrow. If they do, an existing Android phone or tablet user might get it in a week or they might never get it. No, not even if you ran out and bought one of the Hot New Android Phones a month ago. Android selling more tablets and phones under its own Nexus imprint might assure consumers that an investment in Android doesn’t doom your device to a lifetime of outdated acid-washed jeans and neon plastic sunglasses.

Will we see Google Glass? Sure, I’d be shocked if someone didn’t take the stage wearing Google’s breakthrough snooping and surreptitious data-collection device. Whoops, sorry, typo: I meant “augmented reality glasses.” Google has stated that Glass is just a research project with no near-term commercial prospects, however. I expect a chest-beating demo but no announcements.

Meanwhile, rumors are flying that Google will add a Siri-like personal voice assistant to the core OS…code named “Majel,” amusingly enough. The computers in “Star Trek” were voiced by Gene Roddenberry’s wife, Majel Barrett. Android has always had wonderful voice control features. Siri seems more like a shot against Google’s signature strength: search. Apple’s demo of iOS 6.0 boldfaced that impression by adding colorful, customized responses to requests like “Who won the Sox game last night?”

Siri is a tough feature to get right. Even Apple is still working on it. But it’s not hard to do it well. In fact, you can get a personal voice assistant on Android already, either as a built-in feature or as an app download.

Google’s Chrome browser has been doing well on Windows and MacOS, and a new beta of the app for Android devices is better than the standard Android browser. It’s a valid source of pride and strength and I’m eager to see where Google will be positioning it in 2012. Why wouldn’t it become the default browser in every Android device?

Less a source of pride and strength: Chrome OS. Their cloud-based OS still moves forward, but on unsteady footing. It’s possible that Chromebooks are the right idea for a different kind of market. I wonder how much attention Google will give to it during their two keynotes.

Back in the days of the Cold War, defense analysts would carefully scrutinize the reviewing stand during May Day festivities. The theory was that the Kremlin gave out clues as to which senior officials and which government and military departments had fallen in and out of favor by how closely they stood to the General Secretary of the Party.

If Google IO were a May Day reviewing stand, a 7” tablet would be waving at the tanks and missile launchers and standing right next to Brezhnev. The Chrome browser would be a few more bodies away, but still in every frame of the TV coverage. Chrome OS would be at the gates of the building, angrily waving an invitation at an impassive guard and shrieking that he is, too supposed to be up there.

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