Google is playing with my head. After its I/O developers’ conference, my brain feels like a tennis ball batted back and forth as I try to settle on the implications for news and media of what the company announced this week. I think the winning viewpoint is that what we media folk still insist on thinking of as news content will more and more be chunked up and served in morsels. Or not and we’re seeing the bolstering of the old web. Or not and we’re getting our first real glimpse of the post-Gutenberg age.
On the one hand…
The most impressive thing I saw at Google I/O was the Washington Post’s Progressive Web App — that is, a series of web pages that acts just like an app, even working offline, without the need for the Post to develop or you to download an application.
On your phone’s Chrome browser (this won’t work on your laptop or even unfortunately on your tablet), go to washingtonpost.com/pwa. You will see a Post home page load in an instant. Click on one story, then another. Click on one section, then another. Instant, all. Close your mouth.
This is made possible thanks to two Google innovations. The first is accelerated mobile pages (AMP), which I’ve yammered on about often. Through using a limited and shared base of code, standards that reject bloated advertising, and shared analytics trackers, AMP pages load at least four times faster than plain web pages. Add in the cacheing or prefetching of content and it’s even faster.
Another Google innovation called the “service worker” does the rest. “Service worker” might sound as if Google has armies of contractors in conference rooms killing conservative news and slow pages. But no, this is a mechanism that enables a web-site developer to have your browser fetch, cache, and serve content if the user’s connection is slow or even offline. Google calls this “offline first.” Who’d have thought a great innovation of the online web would be taking it offline?
So with this, pundits could declare the app dead, replaced by the superfast Progressive Web App. Not so fast.
Slow down, too, you pundits who have declared the web site dead in the new age of distributed media, in which publishers are serving their content on Facebook’s Instant Articles and on Google’s Amp (which makes it seem as if a page is served up directly in, say Google search), not to mention in Snapchat and YouTube. With the Progressive Web App, Google is making it possible for users to love web sites again. Thus Google strengthens the web site and the open web itself. Whiplash.
On the other hand…
Google announced two critical developments in the app world.
One involves Chrome OS. (Stop snickering. I’ve been using nothing but for more than two years now and thanks to education and enterprise business, Google said more Chromebooks were shipped in the last quarter in the U.S. than Macs.) Chromebooks will soon be able to run Android apps. Indeed, the Chrome OS will be running the Android OS inside. You’ll even be able to run apps offline — another paradoxical advance in the offline internet from the world’s leading online company. The app is dead, long live the app, eh?
The second development is Android Instant Apps. Even without downloading an app, you will be able to use parts of that app through the web or other platforms such as messaging. Example: You follow a link to buy a pair of boots and a piece of the store’s app can be brought up, allowing you to make a complete transaction without even having the app downloaded. You will also be given the opportunity to download the app if you like. So in one sense, this kills the need to download apps. In another sense, it promotes apps by making them more accessible. Follow the bouncing brain.
To take advantage of Instant Apps, developers will need to “modularize” their applications, cutting them into pieces that can be called up independently. Let the chunking begin.
On the other, other hand…
In a sense, Google had to play catch-up at I/O, announcing new products and services that look a lot like its competitors’: a video calling service called Duo (see: Apple FaceTime), a messaging service called Allo (see: Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp), and an in-home personal assistant called Home (see: Amazon Echo, to which Google CEO Sundar Pichai properly gave props).
Pichai also announced a next-generation strategy for the company and its vision for search and the net: Google Assistant. The company’s goal is not just to predict what you’re going to type in a search box but now to assist you in actual tasks. Here, Google has legs up on its rivals because it is so advanced in artificial intelligence and learning systems as well as natural language processing and because it has so damned much data about our collective behavior and speech.
You can see a glimmer of this uncanny ability to assist in Gmail’s Inbox, which will present you with three appropriate — not canned — responses to emails that beg an answer. I was about to use one in response to a Google executive a few weeks ago when I feared she’d know I’d cheated and let Google answer Google. I also await the Times trend story about wives accusing husbands of not being responsive: “Was that you speaking or Google?” But I digress.
Soon (everything at I/O is coming “soon”), Pichai said you’ll be able to turn to your Google Home device and say “Hey, Google…” (note how Google isn’t sharing the brand limelight with any alter-ego named Siri or Alexa) “…what’s playing in town?” Google can show you movies and play trailers and then you can enter into a conversation with Google, which I’ll demonstrate below.
Add up three of the four announcements I just listed — Google Assistant, Google Home, and messaging app Allo — and I further my prediction of the chunking of content.
Before I explain, let me add one more development: In his search keynote at I/O, Google News head Richard Gingras touted rich cards as a successor to rich snippets in search. Example: In the old days of search, you’d search for “brownie recipe” and get 10 blue links. Then Google let web sites include thumbnail pictures and metadata in their pages so search would return more enticing snippets. Now, Google will encourage publishers to all but use Google as a content management system to directly publish more information and bigger photos in carousels of cards Google will serve in search results.
It has been true for sometime that you don’t need to go to Weather.com to get the temperature or to United.com to find out when your wife’s flight is landing; Google search will just give you the information.
Now — or soon — you will be able to enter into a conversation with Google via its Home gadget or via a bot in Allo that Pichai says will go something like this (with some dramatic license from me):
You: Hey, Google! What’s playing in town tonight?
Google lists three or four movies and offers to show you trailers on your phone or laptop or TV.
You: I want to take the kids.
Google knows you have kids (except probably in Germany) and has learned what they like and makes a recommendation.
You: Is it any good? What are the critics saying?
Google can give you a rich summary of a critic’s review or the Rotten Tomatoes score. Note here that you didn’t have to repeat the movie title; Google understands the antecedent. That makes conversation possible.
You: What time is it playing?
Google tells you.
You say you want the 7 p.m. show and tell Google to buy tickets.
In that exchange, all kinds of data and functionality from movie, news, and theater sites and applications got chunked up and served to you in a much more convenient, efficient, and useful way than we are stuck with now via the old web or clunky apps.
What does this mean for us in news? When I sent a much briefer email with these observations to folks I work with, my colleague Carrie Brown, head of the CUNY J-School’s Social Journalism program, replied that the chunking up of content seems to point yet again to the need for journalism as service over product. Carrie’s right, as usual.
The Washington Post is going to want to be a rich card ready to serve up with its movie review when you ask Google how that movie is.
The Post is going to want to have a bot that can answer your questions about anything it covers: what’s happening in town tonight or what horrid idiocy did President Trump spew today or what are the rules of impeachment?
Yes, on the one hand, the Post will still have a site and via the Progressive Web App it can be served up lightning fast and you can use it when stuck in a Metro tunnel. On the other hand, the Post’s content — no, its information and service— will be chunked up and served in myriad new ways, not according to the structure, taxonomy, and history of the product we called a newspaper , in 800-word artifacts, but instead as cards and answers and functions that meet the needs and context of its users on their schedule..
In this world, the Post and any news organization cannot go it alone, hubristically insisting that users must come to their sites and glean information the way we choose to give it to them, just because we’ve always done it that way. No, we have to work through and together with Google’s Assistant and Search and Home and Allo and Facebook’s News Feed and Messenger and WhatsApp and so on.
I hope we’ll be smart enough to do that and — this is critical — I hope the platforms will be smart enough to help us do that by sharing data, experience, and learning so, together, we can better serve the public. That is why I wrote this call for peace in the kingdom, now made even more urgent by what Google and Facebook announced at their developers’ conferences.
We are only now just beginning to see the first glimpses of what informing people will look like in the post-Gutenberg age. It starts with the words, “Hey, Google…”