At its I/O conference last week, Google (GOOG, GOOGL) pitched an ambitious vision in which its Google Assistant will keep you informed and on schedule through the Android phone (or, now, iPhone) in your pocket and the Google Home voice-driven smart-home hub. Google’s smarts will literally serve as your eyes, in the form of the Google Lens addition to Assistant, and will not only organize your photos and remind you to share them but even create photo books for you.
In other words, Google would be quite happy if you ignored its competitors and gave it all your business. That should sound familiar, because you’ve probably heard the same basic “leave all this to us” invitation from Apple (AAPL) and, if you’re old enough, Microsoft (MSFT).
If you decline that invitation, you may have gadgets and apps that don’t always fit together and will certainly demand separate passwords. For example, using Google Photos and Apple’s iCloud email may add an extra step to sharing with photos with friends that you wouldn’t have if you let Google handle everything.
You should find opportunities to say “no thanks” to the leave-this-to-us pitch—deliberately and strategically—anyway.
Everybody makes mistakes, even giant tech conglomerates
Comparing this year’s I/O announcements to Google news from past conferences should offer one reason why you should spread your business around.
In 2016, for example, Google devoted a big chunk of its keynote to two new chat apps, Allo and Duo, that have yet to make a meaningful dent in the market. The market-research firm App Annie’s recent-download stats for the messaging app Allo and the video-calling app Duo show them nowhere near WhatsApp or Skype.
This year’s I/O featured almost no news about messaging apps—which is good, because the 12 months in between have only showed how incoherent Google’s strategy looks in this area. The web giant has revived its long-neglected Google Voice apps while taking features in and out of the Hangouts app that had supposedly replaced it.
This history leaves little confidence that you should trust Google with your instant-messaging needs. This history also suggests that a company’s excellence at one category communications (in Google’s case, email) doesn’t mean it can extend that success to a related category. See also: Facebook’s (FB) unsuccessful attempt to turn its Messenger app into a replacement for your e-mail service, or Apple’s frequent stumbles at delivering cloud services in areas ranging from online storage to web radio.
And after spending a few years trying to launch its own social network—most recently, 2011’s introduction of its Google+ network—Google has stopped talking about that subject. The closest it got to discussing social networks at I/O: a cringe-inducing part of the opening keynote touting YouTube comments (no, really) and announcing a “SuperChat” option in which you can pay to have your comment boosted (ick).
Complexity is another word for “avoiding a single point of failure”
But there’s another, more universal, reason to decline the leave-this-to-us invitation you’ll see at an event like Google I/O or the Worldwide Developer Conference Apple will stage in two weeks: resilience.
Spreading your business around adds complexity—like more usernames, passwords, and apps to wrangle—but also insulation from security and privacy threats. It’s not a game-over moment if your account gets hacked at one service, or if that service suffers some downtime. It also limits the visibility any one company has into your online pursuits.
Finally, saying “no thanks” to a company you already rely on for some services shows you haven’t reached a point of total dependency. It means you considered your options and didn’t make the easy choice. In other words, it’s good practice at being an empowered customer.
In that light, one of my favorite stats among the many shared by presenters at Google I/O: Only 64.5% of Android users granted an app’s request to use a phone’s camera. I had worried that everybody would tap the “Allow” button, but many of you remain a skeptical lot.
If you’re tired of being treated as an advertising target by one free service or another, this also offers a chance to pay for a smaller service with a different business model. In my case, that meant declining Google Keep or Microsoft OneNote for my note-taking; instead, I pay for Evernote’s premium subscription. I also opted years ago not to use Google’s Blogger for my own blog in favor of WordPress.com.
Is Big Tech tempering its ambitions?
Are giant tech companies realizing they shouldn’t try to do it all? Perhaps. This I/O conference featured zero new hardware announcements. Maybe Google has realized that it needs to work on its sales pitch for its existing gadgets before shipping any new ones?
Microsoft, meanwhile, realized a few years ago that it was not going to be able to extend its desktop success into the mobile realm. These days, it makes headlines, as it did at this month’s Build conference, when it ships software to help Android phones work better with Windows PCs.
We’ll have to see if Apple’s WWDC reveals any new recognition of the company’s limits. That may not happen. Apple’s insane attention to detail, down to pizza-box design, in its upcoming spaceship headquarters building doesn’t suggest an outbreak of humility there.
What we don’t need to wait to realize: Simplicity isn’t always the top virtue in technology. An iPad using Google Photos for picture backup and sharing and Microsoft’s Outlook.com for e-mail will require a few more passwords (which you can store in a third-party password manager like LastPass, Dashlane or 1Password instead of trusting that to Apple or Google). But it also does its little part to preserve choice and competition.
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