Google is out of original ideas

Google kicked off I/O, its biggest event of the year, on Wednesday.

And yet, not a single product announced was new.

At I/O, we saw Google chasing the trends of the moment instead of leaving us with the feeling that it has anything original left in the works that aren’t just Google-fied versions of what we’ve seen before from its rivals.

(To be clear, I’m just talking about Google, not its parent company Alphabet, which is working on crazy projects ranging from internet-spewing drones to ways to cheat death.)

First there’s Google Home, a smart WiFi speaker launching later this year that has Google’s new virtual assistant living inside. It responds to voice commands and can do everything from telling you your flight is delayed to playing your favourite music.

Google homeGoogleGoogle Home.

Sound familiar? That’s because it’s exactly the same as Amazon’s Echo, the smart speaker that has turned into a unexpected hit for the company.

Then there’s Allo, a messaging app infused with Google’s intelligence that can guess what you want to type next and suggest things to do when you’re chatting.

It’s the same stuff we’re seeing in Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Telegram, and the slew of other messaging apps out there clinging to the idea that people want to send texts to a virtual helper to buy flowers and book tickets. (They don’t.) Allo looks fine, but good luck getting hundreds of millions of people already locked into other messaging platforms to switch over.

Next, there’s Duo, a video chat app, which inexplicably competes with Google’s other video chat app, Hangouts, on top of Microsoft’s Skype and Apple’s FaceTime.

Finally, we saw Daydream, the new virtual reality platform built into Android, with the hopes that people will build headsets that you can slot your smartphone into. Its interface and overall concept is almost a direct copy of Samsung and Oculus’ Gear VR.

Here’s Gear VR’s main menu:

And here’s Daydream’s:

Everything Google showed us this week is an iteration on something one of its competitors has already done, but with the promise it can do it better. And that’s assuming the products even make it past the initial “oooo and ahhhhh” phase that has the tech press whipped into a frenzy this week.

After all, Google has a history of announcing flashy projects at I/O that either never launched or totally bombed, like Google Glass, Google TV, and the Nexus Q media streaming orb. All of those appeared to be pretty cool when they were first unveiled… until people actually tried to use them.

Two CNET writers got to talk to Google CEO Sundar Pichai ahead of I/O and asked why Google’s new products appear to be following the competition, not leading it.

His answer was the one we often hear from tech executives: From the outside, it may appear like Google is chasing its competitors’ ideas, but it’s all fuelled by the belief that Google has a superior product. Pichai rightfully pointed to web search, web browsing, and email as all areas that existed before Google got involved and perfected them.

But the only project Pichai’s optimism could apply to is Google Home. Assuming the speaker sounds good and the microphones are just as accurate as the ones on the Echo, Google Home has an immediate advantage over Amazon thanks to Google Assistant, the next iteration of the already excellent Google Now.

Google Now has bested Siri since it first debuted four years ago, and no one has beaten it simply because it’s so good at mining all the data Google already has on you from your search history to Amazon package deliveries. Putting Google Assistant in a can inside your home sounds like a fantastic idea, and it’s going to be tough for Amazon to match it.

As for everything else?

It’s just Google chasing stuff the rest of the industry already invented.

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