The Upgrade

Tech Events Aren’t Fun Anymore

Google I/O brought some updates but no “gee whiz” moments

AA conversation with a computer, a search that can “see” beyond the typed word, A.I. that can detect lung cancer before human doctors. These are all amazing achievements, and I bobbed my head appreciatively as Google CEO Sundar Pichai and various other execs unveiled them at this year’s Google I/O keynote.

But when I close my eyes and think of Google I/O events of years past, certain images flood in, like a team of parachute divers jumping out of an airplane to introduce Google Glass, a weather balloon delivering internet access from the sky, phones you assembled from puzzle-like pieces, and fabric that seemed alive. These achievements were stunning, audacious, and exciting.

But those days are gone.

Some might argue that the products Google unveiled on Tuesday — privacy-focused software updates and some fresh hardware iterations — are inspired in their own way. But I wonder what happened to the moon-shot-obsessed Google that toyed with robots, cooked up ridiculous modular phone ideas, and put a giant Android-powered labyrinth game on the floor of the 2011 Google I/O convention space.

The relatively staid approach isn’t unique to Google. Look at Facebook, the company that just two years ago unveiled a brain-computer interface at its F8 conference. This year’s keynote was about quality of conversation, safe spaces, groups, privacy — lots of privacy — and commerce on the Facebook platform.

Microsoft’s last big developer conference moment was when it introduced HoloLens in 2015. The mixed-reality headset was totally unexpected and seemingly out of character for the once dull tech company. A few years later, and HoloLens is on version two, but for Build 2019, Microsoft’s cloud service Azure took center stage.

These developer conferences are still full of innovation, but that sense of experimentation — the risk factor, the “look what we just did” — is gone. The crazy ideas have been scrubbed clean, and tech companies seem overwhelmed with a new sense of responsibility.

This is understandable. The last 24 months have been some of the tech sector’s darkest. Whatever trust they once enjoyed has completely eroded. Today’s tech leaders are thoughtful, careful, and desperate to be liked. When I think back to the tech mavericks I saw early in my career, they barely seem to be of the same species.

Before his beatification in the early 2000s, Steve Jobs was one half of the Pirates of Silicon Valley. That under-appreciated 1999 TV film starring Noah Wyle as Jobs and Anthony Michael Hall as Bill Gates depicted two entrepreneurs who gave little thought to the welfare of their customers. And it wasn’t far from the truth. Gates and Jobs (and Microsoft and Apple) were focused on beating each other and delivering their own brand of graphical user interfaces to the masses.

To them, messaging was secondary to burn-out-your-retinas invention. Every event, product launch, and developer conference was another opportunity to knock people’s socks off and inspire. Revenge of the Nerds was real, and these were the nerd superheroes we worshiped. Their scorched-earth strategies may have inspired Google’s original “Don’t Be Evil” code of conduct in 1999, but a decade later, Google was less concerned with optics than no-nonsense invention.

Can you imagine what would have happened if Pichai had described Google Search’s new camera and augmented-reality capabilities as just a “search engine with eyes”?

In 2009, when Google wanted to paint a picture of the future of search, it didn’t mince words. As then vice president of search Marissa Mayer put it, “Search engines that understand where you are in the world, search engines that understand you when you talk to them, even search engines with eyes: These are the things that are going to change the interface for search, fundamentally, as we move forward.”

Can you imagine what would have happened if Pichai had described Google Search’s new camera and augmented-reality capabilities as just a “search engine with eyes” even though that’s basically what they represent?

Where those early tech leaders were unapologetic and unafraid, Pichai, Microsoft’s Satya Nadella, Apple’s Tim Cook, and even Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg are well-mannered, careful, and — when speaking publicly at least — deeply concerned about consumer perception. Cook could’ve inherited the mantle of crazy genius from the late Steve Jobs, but that’s never been him. Fortunately for Apple, Cook’s hands-off approach to consumer data and resistance to outlandish ideas appears to be serving them well — even if it has led to a certain lack of rock-star product moments.

Cook, Zuckerberg, Nadella, and Pichai compete, in some ways, just as Jobs and Gates did decades ago, but there is little drama there. On the contrary, Pichai is no less reserved on stage than Cook.

Throughout the roughly two-hour Google I/O keynote on Tuesday, Pichai and company took great care to describe virtually every update as a tool for good, an update for assistance, and a way to control technology so that it doesn’t control you. The entire keynote was centered on “building a more helpful Google for everyone.” That lacks a certain edge, wouldn’t you say?

Google assiduously avoided whipping people into a frenzy even about its most inspiring developments.

All of these tech companies are grappling with the very real possibility that anything they do with consumer data in the future could put them at odds with current European and future U.S. regulation. As a result, they’re playing it safe. And in doing so, they are necessarily changing the complexion of these developer conferences.

Don’t get me wrong: I think, for example, that Google’s Project Euphonia, which can interpret muddled speech and even convert facial movements into language, is powerful and important work. But the news was delivered dispassionately. Google assiduously avoided whipping people into a frenzy even about its most inspiring developments.

It makes me a little sad. Sure, there were times when I shook my head at the overreach and the obvious hubris of previous developer conferences, but I’m also anxious for the future. Smart search and conversational A.I. will change our lives, but they don’t rock our world. I want to be amazed again.

Tech expert, journalist, social media commentator, amateur cartoonist and robotics fan.

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