In the 1993 made-for-HBO movie “Barbarians at the Gate” there is a scene in which Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co.’s Henry Kravis is being asked by his business partner George Roberts what to do about being rebuffed by RJR Nabisco’s CEO Ross Johnson regarding taking part in the largest leveraged buyout to date. Kravis responds chillingly in one word: “Napalm.”
That aggressive declaration of war may just as well have applied to Google’s declaration of war on Amazon, Microsoft and Apple delivered at its annual i/o conference last week. Google has as vast an array products and services as any of its main competitors, and it is now gunning aggressively in almost all directions — simultaneously.
It is too much to go into detail here about all of Google’s competitive offensives, so this will be an overview soon to be followed by considerably more detail on each point. The laundry list of Google’s announcements had its hidden gems, whoppers as well as the inevitable distractions.
I bet that, most likely, the two things you heard about Google last week were (1) the skydiving stunt and (2) the new small 7-inch tablet. So let’s start with those.
- Skydiving stunt: Conceived by co-founder Sergey Brin, this highly dangerous maneuver right above downtown San Francisco was made to demonstrate the new eyeglasses that Google plans to release initially in limited volume in early 2013.
I wrote about these Google glasses before, on April 9 and I was very positive about one particular killer app I had in mind. As much as I enjoyed the skydiving stunt from a live entertainment perspective — who wouldn’t? — it wasn’t necessary. But it got the whole world talking about it.
With Google having so many other things to introduce, focusing on the skydiving stunt was a little bit like following General Patton around near Dover, England, in the late Spring of 1944: Entertaining, but you’d be barking up the wrong tree. D-Day is happening somewhere else.
- New tablet: The fact that Google partnered with Asus for a 7-inch tablet that was going to cost $200 had been widely leaked for quite some time, but the product still managed to surprise most observers. In combination with the new operating system — 4.1 Jelly Bean — the hardware performs like a champ and is extremely pleasant in your hand. It’s a major winner, especially for $200.
That’s not to say that the Asus Nexus 7 covers all the bases. At 7 inches, it’s obviously not a direct competitor to the iPad, but rather primarily to Samsung, Amazon and the BlackBerry PlayBook. It only comes with one camera, dedicated to videoconferencing, and it lacks cellular data connectivity.
Fear not, however, as we surely will soon see many other Android 4.1 tablets from multiple hardware vendors sporting larger screen sizes, more cameras, and cellular data connectivity. Lest I fail to mention the obvious, but how about Google-owned Motorola releasing multiple tablets ranging from 7 to 12 inches later this year?
Speaking of Motorola, it was as absent from Google’s presentations as a 1930s version of a picture of Lenin containing a nearby Trotsky. Google closed its largest acquisition to date by far, whether measured by price, sales or number of employees — and not a single word mentioning even the name Motorola. This worries me as a shareholder.
- PDK: Google plans to release its Platform Development Kit for Android to hardware makers (and software modifiers) well in advance of any new major Android operating system release. This is related to things such as drivers, which may sound boring but has been the key reason for delays in launches of Android devices as well as upgrades to old ones. This is a huge step forward for Android, meaningfully improving the competitive landscape against Apple and Microsoft — and yet it got almost zero attention in the media.
- Google NOW: Part of the new Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, Google NOW is a new predictive engine that anticipates what you need or should know based on where you are, where you’re going and your past habits. It tells you proactively when to leave for your next meeting, when and where the nearest buses are departing, restaurants around you and so forth. It will learn your behavior over time and refine itself infinitely. A huge winner against Apple and Microsoft.
- Chrome OS: Available today from Samsung in desktop and laptop form factors — see my review from June 4 — Chrome OS devices will now finally be marketed in retail locations, starting with Best Buy(BBY). Google also confirmed that many more Chromebooks and Chromeboxes from other device makers should be expected to arrive soon, and I interpreted that to mean by November at the latest.
- Nexus Q: This is a multimedia player connecting directly to speakers or to an existing home entertainment system. It competes with some combination of privately held Sonos, as well as Roku and Apple TV.
Suffice it to say that I don’t see that it offers any meaningful advantage over the competition that makes me want to pay $300 for it. Unless it obtains a software upgrade that dramatically improves the value proposition, it will fail.
- Cloud Computing: This is the “Big Kahuna” of Google’s sweet spot in the emerging technologies, and it appears to be launching major broadsides against companies such as Amazon and Microsoft in particular. Instead of purchasing and installing local apps on your devices (laptops, tablets, smartphones, whatever), Google just executes these instructions in the cloud without any of the relative cost or hassle.
I can’t emphasize Google’s cloud computing efforts enough. Many companies including Microsoft, Apple and Amazon should be running scared. They may try to match Google in this area, but they risk punctuating their own profit models in the process.
As just one example, Google showed how to map DNA in a fraction of a second using 600,000 CPU cores. Who knows how many years such a calculation used to take in the past? We tend to be impressed when the incumbent computing companies expand from one core, to two, four and six. This demo was 600,000 cores.
The phrase “orders of magnitude” is often over-used, but not in this case: How about 100,000 times? Over the next couple of years, this dramatic Google capability is likely to change the computing landscape more than any other factor in the history of technology.
In summary, don’t let yourself be distracted by the skydiving stunt, or pin all of your hopes on the new Asus 7-inch Nexus tablet. It will take most of Wall Street the better part of the next year to digest Google’s dramatic progress in many critical areas where the competition is being left in the dust. If I were Microsoft, Amazon or Apple, I would be afraid — very afraid.
[Cross-posted at The Street]