The best of times, the worst of times
A tech company as big as Google is bound to do some amazing things every year, but it's also not immune to failure. Let's look back at where the search giant went right and wrong in 2014.
Hit: Android Lollipop’s new look
Android wasn’t exactly ugly in its previous incarnations, but it’s never looked as gorgeous as it does in Android 5.0 Lollipop. The new software combines flat design conventions with just a touch of depth and shadow, giving a sense that Android is built from layers of card stock. Now all we need is for OEMs not to mess it all up.
Miss: Finding a future for Google Glass
It's been nearly two years since Google launched the prototype version of Google Glass, and its future looks murkier than ever. Instead of building hype, the Glass Explorer program merely exacerbated the stigmas and fears people had about Google's high-tech specs. Recent reports suggest that a consumer launch is nowhere in sight. A possible pivot toward enterprise uses may help Google salvage the project, but it's hardly looking like the revolution that Sergey Brin and his Google X labmates had in mind.
Hit: Chromecast beams past the competition
Google's $35 TV dongle had its share of naysayers when it launched last year, but it's clear now that Chromecast is a huge hit. A recent survey by Parks Associates found that Chromecast overtook Apple TV in U.S. sales, moving into second place behind Roku. Google also continued to build on Chromecast’s app library this year, with major additions such as MLB.TV, WatchESPN, Showtime Anytime, and Comedy Central. This isn't rocket science, folks; Chromecast is a smart idea, executed well, at a price no other media streamer has been able to beat.
Miss: Android Silver slips away
Earlier this year, a slew of rumors suggested that Google was working on a white-glove service for high-end Android phones. Dubbed "Android Silver,” the plan was to offer fast upgrades and minimal bloatware on multiple phones from major wireless carriers. Ultimately, Silver may have replaced the Nexus program and helped bring pure Android to the mainstream. But according to The Information, this plan fell apart after receiving little interest from carriers and phone makers, followed by the departure of Chief Business Officer Nikesh Arora. Long live the Nexus, then?
Hit: No more Kafkaesque Captchas
Copying jumbled letters into a web form stopped being an effective anti-spam measure years ago, as machines became better at the task than most people. Fortunately, Google is putting an end to the cruel joke. Its latest “No Captcha ReCaptcha” requires only the click of a button, as it picks up on subtle cursor movements to figure out who's human.
Miss: Staying neutral on net neutrality
Google was once a major proponent of net neutrality, pushing the idea that Internet service providers shouldn't be allowed to discriminate against certain types of traffic. That was before Google forged a pact with Verizon in 2010 and essentially flip-flopped. With net neutrality becoming a hot topic again, Google had a chance to make things right. Instead, it has maintained a healthy distance, refusing to discuss its views with any substance. That's a letdown regardless of which side of the debate you favor.
Hit: VR goes cheap with Cardboard
While Oculus and Samsung charge hundreds of dollars for their respective virtual reality headsets, Google proved that you can make compelling VR out of nothing but a pair of lenses and some cardboard. Just follow the online instructions (or order a cheap construction kit), download the Cardboard Android app, and enjoy some neat demos. Even if Cardboard never matures beyond its current state, it's a welcome throwback to a time when Google liked to have fun.
Miss: Twitch today, Amazon tomorrow
It seemed like Google was this close to locking up its Internet video dominance with a billion-dollar acquisition of Twitch, a hugely-popular live video service focused on gaming. But while numerous publications claimed the deal was done, a last-minute arrangement with Amazon left Google empty-handed. The good news for consumers (which, in turn, is bad news for Google) is that Twitch now represents the closest thing to a competitive threat that YouTube has seen in years.
Hit: Google Voice’s new lease on life
Google Voice users had been understandably on edge since last year, as the call management service had been sorely lacking in major updates. Fortunately, 2014 brought substantive improvements, including MMS support and integration of many Voice features in Google’s slick new Hangouts app. While Google is known for putting niche services on the chopping block, longtime Voice users should be able to rest easier now.
Miss: Good grief, Google+
Google’s social network isn’t technically dead, but all signs indicate Google could de-emphasize its social network after the departure of Vic Gundotra in April. Google’s I/O conference came and went without any major Google+ news, and users may now create Google and Gmail accounts without a mandatory Google+ page. An unconfirmed report by TechCrunch also claimed that Google killed a policy requiring new products to have some Google+ element. While the single sign-in aspect of Google+ remains a success, the social networking angle is a failure—even according to one of its former engineers.
Hit: Bridging the Office-Drive divide
For lots of people, Google Drive and its Docs/Sheets/Slides suite have become a suitable replacement for Microsoft Office—until it’s time to deal with someone else’s Office documents. This year, Google updated its apps and added a Chrome extension to allow direct editing of Office documents, and added one-click document conversion from Gmail. There may still be other reasons to choose Office, but document formatting doesn’t have to be one of them anymore.
Miss: Take down that barge
It's been more than a year since Google 'fessed up to plans for “ interactive spaces” on a pair of floating barges in Los Angeles and Portland, Ore. But now those plans seem to be adrift. Googledismantled the Portland barge in August amid fire safety concerns, while the Los Angeles barge shipped up to Stockton, Calif., near San Francisco, where it can “have a break,” according to Google. Strangely, Stockton's tourism website has a page about the incomplete barge, but notes that it's off-limits to the public and is best viewed from a nearby peninsula.
Hit: Peace in the patent war with Apple
While Steve Jobs made no secret of his disdain for Android, and even likened Apple's patent battle to a “holy war” in company e-mails, Tim Cook seems more willing to let the patent spats slide under the bridge. Apple settled with Google's Motorola in May, and settled all non-U.S. disputes with Samsung in August. Google also settled with Rockstar, a consortium that includes Apple, Blackberry and Microsoft, for a bundle of patents last month. Maybe now, everyone can get back to competing.
Miss: The right to be forgotten
Although Google doesn’t want to be in charge of erasing the past, that’s exactly what it must do according to Europe’s “right to be forgotten” rules enacted this year. The issue is a knotty one: Crime victims and people who made stupid mistakes arguably deserve a second shot at web anonymity, but the rule also threatens press freedom and gives public figures a way to hide unsavory truths. Either way, it’s Google’s mess now, as the search giant must figure out how to reasonably maintain a memory hole for the Internet.