Google I/O happened yesterday (and, I suppose, today, but the keynote was yesterday). And probably the most notable thing that came out of it was a negative space: Google did not announce any new devices. They’ll sell an unlocked Galaxy S4 running bare Android (which is both an acknowledgment that Samsung is the premiere supplier of Android phones, and a blow to the narrative that Samsung is going to ditch Android), but they announced not a single new piece of hardware at the show.
On one level, this is surprising: the last few years of the tech industry have been dominated by hardware releases, since at least the original iPhone. Last year, at this same show, Google announced the Nexus 4, Nexus 7, and Nexus 10.
On another level, it’s totally unsurprising. What would they announce? Can you make the Nexus lineup better? Sure. I’d like a smaller bezel on my Nexus 7, the Nexus 4 very obviously lacks LTE support, and who the hell cares about the Nexus 10, because smaller tablets are where it’s at. But incremental evolution of the now mature lineup of phones and tablets isn’t going to sustain a show. And nobody seems to have any brilliant ideas for what’s next for phones and tablets.
Google Glass isn’t ready for primetime, and while smart watches are coming, Google hasn’t even announced a product there yet — and it’s unclear whether smart watches will ever be able to overcome their inherently ultra-small UI.
This isn’t a huge problem for Google, which is pretty much only in the device space in order to drive people onto their search and other web products anyway, and which dumps a huge amount of the risk (and reward) of device manufacturing on their hardware partners anyway, notably the aforementioned Samsung.
But it is both a huge problem and potentially huge opportunity for Apple, which built itself into the company it is today on a stepladder that looks like: iPod, iPhone, iPad, each standout, first-in-class devices that defined a market. If Apple can’t come up with a compelling device this year or the next, its fortunes will be dominated by its steadily-shrinking marketshare in the smartphone and tablet worlds.
But the opportunity is definitely there for Apple, which has shown in the past the ability to create markets for new devices that competitors take years to catch up with. And with its competitors seeing nowhere to go, Apple could do it again. If Apple creates a compelling, successful product out of either their rumored smart watch, their rumored taking-it-seriously-this-time AppleTV, or some kind of as-yet-unguessed new project, OR if they can think of a new feature on phones or tablets that is not just an evolutionary “higher number” deal, then they stand poised to renew their status as the tech company non-pareleil.
Disclosure: I own some Apple stock.