Pros and cons of taking Google I/O outside

My most recent tech event took place in an unusual venue: a concert amphitheater set into the hills of the San Francisco Bay.

Android statueHeading into Google I/O, I was uneasy about Google’s decision–announced in a January 12 tweet from CEO Sundar Pichai–to move its developer conference from Moscone West in San Francisco to the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View. Unlike that convention center three blocks off Market Street, Shoreline promised no meaningful pedestrian, cyclist or transit access.

Fortunately, the traffic dystopia I feared did not quite happen at I/O 16, and this location revealed some redeeming qualities.

Having the analog environment of nature around was foremost among them–especially on Wednesday, when the temperature soared into the ’80s. Typing on my laptop in the shade of the press center brought back pleasant memories of 2012’s Tech Policy Summit, staged at a resort outside of Napa. But even in the concrete surroundings of the seating bowl, the noise of birds chirping offered a healthy reminder that much of the world doesn’t care what we humans do with circuits and code.

(This avian accompaniment was not risk-free. Analyst Jan Dawson almost had a bird poop on his leg.)

Shoreline is surrounded by parking lots, but they looked much better covered by tents and stages for I/O’s various panels and talks. And looking up on walks from one location to another often rewarded me with the sight of 747s and A380s low overhead on their approaches to SFO.

Shoreline stageThe official hotels Google suggested were no cheaper than most San Francisco hotels, but the clean, comfortable Airbnb suite I found in downtown Mountain View was much cheaper than anything I’ve seen listed in the city.

Finally, we did get to experience a concert at this concert venue, Wednesday night’s performance by Charli XCX and Kygo.

But while Google’s shuttle from the Mountain View Caltrain station–not advertised in advance–got me to I/O surprisingly quickly on Wednesday, on Thursday two shuttles in a row left without me because they had no seats left. On Friday, the bus arrived sorely late and then crawled through traffic, finally depositing me at Shoreline after almost as much time as it might have taken to walk the distance.

The weather also got less idyllic after Wednesday, even as the risk of sunburn remained the same. My teeth may have started chattering once or twice Thursday night and Friday afternoon. (Cardinal rule of packing for the Bay Area: Whatever season it is, bring a fleece jacket.)

And while having class outside is usually a great idea, it remains difficult to see a laptop’s screen in sunlight. Brightening the screen was not always a smart response at I/O; power outlets were a lot scarcer than they would have been in a conventional convention facility like Moscone.

All things being equal, I’d rather see I/O move back to San Francisco. But I suspect that Google is content with staging its event at a private space next to its headquarters that it can take over–a sort of Google Island, if you will–and that next May, we’ll have the same battles with traffic and logistics.



Ways to read the Google-Motorola Mobility deal

Did somebody forget to remind Google that August is supposed to be a slow news month? At 7:35 this morning, the Mountain View, Calif., company announced in a blog post by CEO Larry Page that it had agreed to pay about $12.5 billion for Motorola Mobility.

The sum involved alone sets this apart from the average tech merger. So do the relationships that would be upended by Google’s planned purchase of the consumer-oriented half of Motorola spun off in January. (Also unusual compared to other mega-mergers: How nobody leaked the news in advance.)

The reactions I’ve been reading this morning have fallen into three broad categories.

What does this mean for other Android phone vendors?

Motorola wasn’t the first company to ship a phone running Android, so it’s a little awkward to see Google bring it in-house while saying it will continue to license Android to such competing firms as HTC, LG and Samsung. That’s not how things usually work; normally, the operating-system developer either keeps the hardware business to itself (Apple) or lets other companies mess with circuit boards and batteries (Microsoft). There aren’t many cases of an OS vendor both shipping its own devices and licensing its software to competitors–although Palm did this for a while during the Palm OS’s heyday a decade ago, when Sony, Symbol and Handspring also shipped handheld organizers running its software.

The comical conformity of the supportive quotes from HTC, LG, Samsung and Sony Ericsson executives that Google trotted out this morning adds to the weirdness here. Veteran tech observer Dan Gillmor (like me, a former newspaper columnist) suggested that HTC and Samsung must be “absolutely furious.” But if Google uses its control of Motorola to strip out the bloatware that has gummed up too many Android phones, consumers may not mind. (Here’s a tip for Android phone manufacturers: Instead of wasting your time on proprietary software add-ons, get your developers and engineers working on battery life–the single weakest aspect of Android relative to other smartphone operating systems.)

Google says it will run Motorola Mobility as a separate shop, but AllThingsD’s Ina Fried and others have already suggested that it might do better to flip the company’s hardware business.

What about the non-phone half of Motorola Mobility?

Contrary to the “Mobility” moniker, this firm also makes cable boxes–a category of hardware both widely resented by consumers and one of the bigger obstacles to Google’s Google TV project. Commentators such as Tech.pinions’ Steve Wildstom, ZatzNotFunny’s Mari Silbey and GigaOM’s Ryan Lawler and Ryan Kim have all noted this morning that Google will now be in a position to ship a cable box with Google TV software built in–well, if the cable companies don’t mind shipping hardware that puts YouTube and other non-cable video services front and center on the subscribers’ TVs.

To me, this is the biggest reason for optimism about this deal.

What about the patents?

And here we have the most depressing aspect of this transaction–Google needs a stash of patents to defend Android against all the mobile-device patent lawsuits flying around. Motorola Mobility has 17,000 or so, and by gaining control of them Google can then threaten such opposing litigants as Apple and Microsoft with its own patent lawsuits–then propose to settle these fights with cross-licensing deals that extinguish the litigation but will do almost nothing to improve the products in question.

As the New Yorker’s Nicholas Thompson notes in a post this morning, this demonstrates how badly the patent system has failed to promote innovation:

Meanwhile, customers and shareholders will pay for the lawyers. And engineers will spend too much time worrying about violating someone else’s patents, and not enough time figuring out how to build the next magical thing.

He’s right. Suppose we didn’t have this overhang of too-obvious tech patents that should not have been issued in the first place; can’t you think of more productive uses for $12.5 billion than procuring an extra layer of legal armor?