Sussing Out Google’s Master Plan in the Post-App Era

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We’ve endured the desktop era, the post-PC era, the smartphone era, and don’t forget the comically overused “year of mobile.” Now we’re seeing glimpses of the post-mobile era, characterized by VR and AR. The latter will truly break away from the smartphone, and could have the biggest implications for local.

But aside from all these monikers and tech-history signposts, the real story is the evolution of how we consume digital media. For example, the shift from desktop to smartphone has fragmented the “front door” from a search box to millions of apps. It’s hard out there for a search engine.

But now we’re seeing signs that the app era has peaked. App download time, tap counts and screen real estate are seen as wildly bloated to an on-demand culture who simply want tasks completed quickly. One result has been the rise of conversational commerce, and its rally cry, “the chatbot is the new app.”

But more notable are Google’s moves amidst this upheaval. Just as the rise of apps displaced its dominance, their fall could be an opportunity to reclaim it. This carries the principles of an important tech axiom that Google knows well: large scale shifts in consumer behavior create openings for disruption.

Google’s counter-attack to the world of apps can be seen in several places. In fact most Google moves are to drive mobile behavior through its front door. That doesn’t preclude apps, as long as users pass through Google along the way. Examples include Eddystone, Google Now, deep linking, and streaming apps.

This principle underpinned nearly every announcement at Google I/O. Android Instant Apps for example carves out pieces of apps for easier one-time use. It’s a clear play at regaining ownership of users’ mobile time by exploiting the widespread “app bloat” sentiment mentioned above.

Other I/O announcements carrying this theme include Google Assistant and its cousin Allo. Assistant builds from Google Now and joins the batch of AI-fueled personal assistant apps that are all the rage — Alexa, Siri, Viv, etc.. And it’ll be competitive given Google’s knowledge graph and voice processing chops.

Speaking of which, there’s also Google Home. It likewise carries Google’s prevailing theme of coming between you and your apps. In this case it’s a voice-controlled search utility/speaker for the home, a la Amazon Echo. And it could put Alexa to shame, given multi-room Google Cast integration and, again, the knowledge graph.

But the most clever and under-recognized Google move has been Gboard. It replaces iOS’ native keyboard with a full slate of characters, emoji and search functionality. Among other things, you can search for text fodder like gifs while texting. It’s a Trojan Horse to put Google exactly where it wants to be — at the user touch point (literally).

Gboard also represents a sort of “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” approach — something Google has done before. Rather than try to attract traffic back to it’s homepage, it packed up its best features and search functionality and brought them to the most strategic outpost in the war for your thumbs: the keyboard itself.

But Google’s biggest positioning play could be in VR. The Daydream platform announced at I/O goes beyond gaining high ground in a post-app era. It’s about owning the user experience in the next consumer tech revolution. It will be a different game and set of players but Google once again is marking its territory where it always wants to be, at the front door.

Michael BolandMichael Boland is chief analyst and vice president of content at BIA/Kelsey. Previously, he was a tech journalist for Forbes, Red Herring, Business 2.0, and other outlets.

Mike Boland has been a tech & media analyst for the past two decades, specifically covering mobile, local, and emerging technologies. He has written for Street Fight since 2011. More can be seen at