From donkeys to dongles: Google's biggest hits and misses of 2013

Oh, there were a lot of new hardware products and services, too.

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Google 2013: The hits and misses

No matter how you look at it, 2013 was a gargantuan year for Google, which dominated headlines with the introduction of fancy consumer hardware, big-ticket acquisitions, and a slew of new and overhauled services.

But it wasn’t all roses for the great aggregator of the world’s knowledge. For every Chromebook Pixel or Auto-Awesomed Google+ GIF, there was a vaguely dystopian off-note involving government intrusions, a boondoggle at sea, or killer robots. With 2014 just around the corner, let’s take a look back at Google’s epic wins and monumental fails.

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HIT: Chromecast

Google hoped to capture the living room with Google TV in 2010, but resistance from broadcasters and the high price tags of the devices ultimately doomed that attempt before it even got started. Not so with the $35 Chromecast.

Google’s second attempt at invading the living room is a much simpler and much cheaper device that turns virtually any TV into a Web-streaming beast at the click of a button. Deep integration with popular Android apps such as Hulu Plus, Netflix, and YouTube helps to make Chromecast a viable contender against competitors such as the Apple TV and Roku boxes.

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HIT: Waze

Accurate map data is one of Google’s greatest strengths, but even the world’s largest search company is no match for the real-time traffic information that Waze collects from its users worldwide. After rumors swirled of an impending Waze acquisition by Apple and then Facebook, Google swooped in to grab the crowdsourced, commuter-focused navigation service for around $1 billion in July. Google plans on keeping Waze a separate entity for now (à la YouTube), but Waze traffic information is already boosting Google products, including Maps and Google Now.

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MISS: The Barge

It was going to be epic: a floating carnival of wonder brought to you by the same minds that created Google Glass, Android, and animated GIFs with fake snow. The media went crazy wondering what Google might be up to with its floating megaprojects on two coasts. Could this thing be a floating data center? A giant party boat for Sergey and Larry? What?

The reality is nowhere near as exciting. Later, we found out that the Google Barge was little more than a floating showroom and is now reportedly on hiatus until mid- to late 2014, while Google deals with requested design changes from the U.S. Coast Guard. Talk about a missed opportunity.

Image: Portland Press Herald

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HIT: EFF report card and the fight for privacy

Google recently received top marks from the Electronic Frontier Foundation for the degree to which the company protects user data from prying eyes. The EFF quizzed numerous tech giants about whether they would change their data-protection policies following the revelation that the National Security Agency was siphoning data from tech companies’ internal networks. Google, along with several other companies (including Dropbox, Facebook, and SpiderOak), got five out of five stars for implementing or promising to implement various encryption methods.

Google also deserves kudos for continually lobbying the U.S. government to allow the search giant to be more transparent about the number of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) requests it receives.

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HIT: Chromebook Pixel

When Google began selling a Chrome OS notebook starting at $1300 in February, most of the tech world scoffed at the idea—and rightly so. For the same amount of money you could buy a MacBook or a high-end Windows machine capable of running Chrome and traditional desktop software. The Chromebook Pixel was never a big seller, but Google may still have the last laugh.

The Pixel, with its aluminum body and ultrahigh-resolution display, proved that Chromebooks could be more than cheap, plasticky machines. More important, however, PC manufacturers rushed to adopt the Chrome OS platform in the Pixel’s wake, creating affordable laptops that made Google’s browser-in-a-box more attractive to price-sensitive PC shoppers. You still shouldn’t buy one, but this device certainly helped turn a spotlight toward Chromebooks.

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MISS: Google Reader

Google killed its RSS Web app in July, claiming that it didn’t have enough users to justify its existence. In fact, Google Reader was an incredibly useful tool for anyone who wanted to keep tabs on multiple blogs and websites in one spot. The Internet masses clutched their pitchforks and torches in droves, howling for a stay of execution for Reader, but Google never wavered.

On the plus side, Reader’s demise spawned a new market for RSS readers, highlighted by competitive software from Feedly and Digg’s Reader.

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HIT (for a miss): Street View Donkey

If there’s one thing the Internet excels at, it’s stirring up controversy over pretty much anything that’s even mildly scandalous. Street View fans thought they’d hit the jackpot when the image of a donkey lying on a road in Botswana appeared to be the victim of a hit-and-run by a Google Street View car. Blog posts were written, TV news items were recorded, digital fingers were wagged, and Reddit issued a hearty, collective laugh.

Showing grace under pressure, Google calmly explained in a tongue-in-cheek blog post entitled “Never ass-ume” that the Internet had it all wrong: The donkey was not injured after its close encounter with Google’s Street View fleet.

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MISS: Moto Maker

Motorola’s Moto Maker Web app is a slick tool designed to personalize your Moto X smartphone with just the right shade of blue. Unfortunately, Googlerola blew the cool factor of Moto Maker by making it exclusive to AT&T for nearly three months—forcing Moto X fans on competing carriers to make do with plain white or black handsets, thereby negating one of its chief selling points. 

Motorola followed up the Moto Maker letdown with a faceplant on Cyber Monday, offering the Moto X off-contract for just $350. Moto Maker was so overwhelmed that it couldn’t stay up long enough to meet demand. Motorola tried to compensate by running the sale again on December 4 and 9.

It’s too bad Moto Maker had so many problems, because...

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HIT: Moto X

the Moto X is an amazing phone. Sure, it might lack the under-the-hood heft of brawlers such as the HTC One or Samsung Galaxy S4, but you’d never know it in everyday use. What’s more, the Moto X—much like the iPhone—feels well crafted, with killer tailor-made software and a curved design that fits perfectly in your hand. And when Moto Maker is working, no other phone can match the Moto X’s degree of aesthetic customization. The Moto X’s battery life is wonderful, too—though its camera is decidedly not.

All in all, the Moto X won us over enough to claw its way to the top of PCWorld’s “Best of 2013” list. If your current cellular contract is winding down, give this stellar smartphone a long, hard look.

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HIT: Google Maps overhaul

During Google I/O in May, the company introduced a dramatically overhauled interface and feature set for Google Maps. The new Maps combines a sleeker visual look with a smarter search box that displays search results right on the map, while built-in info cards provide reviews, store hours, and other data from the search area.

As good as it is, however, the new Maps still isn’t perfect. Cartography enthusiasts were bummed to see beloved features—such as the terrain view and the ability to add multiple destinations to directions—disappear. The vaunted My Location button is also missing. Even still, the overhauled Maps is a huge improvement over its predecessor.

Snowfall Auto Awesome
HIT: Google+ Auto Awesome

Maps’ new makeup wasn’t the only Google I/O announcement. The company also introduced new features for photos on Google+ that automatically enhanced images with color balancing, composites, and even animated GIF effects, in addition to rolling out several advanced photo-editing tools.

The new automated editing feature is called Auto Awesome, and many people think it’s exactly that. Auto Awesome can scan your uploaded photos and create panoramas, GIFs, and short movie clips from similar groups of images, or combine several photos together to create HDR images or pictures in which everybody is smiling. Google also recently added Twinkle and Snow effects for festive holiday snapshots. Check out the full list of Auto Awesome photo and movie effects, or see TechHive’s guide to getting the most out of Google+.

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MISS: Google+ YouTube comments

Google+ is slowly invading every facet of Google’s online services, but the integration hit a sour note when the company melded Google+ comments with YouTube in November. Legions of YouTube faithful e-screamed in protest at the encroachment. A petition on Change.org has garnered more than 225,000 supporters as of this writing, with many people complaining about the loss of anonymity and the requirement to sign up for Google+. Heck, even a long-silent YouTube cofounder emerged from the shadows to obscenely ponder the new Google+ posting requirement.

On the positive side, before the Google+ integration you would never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy than YouTube comments, so maybe the changeover wasn’t all bad.

androiddevicemanager
HIT: Android Device Manager

It took Google three years to catch up to Apple’s Find My iPhone feature, but in August the search giant finally revealed the Android Device Manager. ADM was long overdue for Android users who relied on third-party options for remotely locking or wiping their lost phones, sometimes paying a premium to get such features. Beyond those two crucial tasks, ADM allows Android users to force misplaced devices to play a sound or to reset handset passwords, all for free. It’s about time.

googlekeep
HIT: Google Keep

Google’s take on a simple note-taking and reminders app for the Web and Android won over many fans when it rolled out in March. Built into Google Drive, Keep lets you quickly create to-do lists, jot down your thoughts, or store photos of miscellany such as business cards and receipts. Keep has seen a few improvements, too, such as helpful Google Now integration and steady UI tweaks for the Web and Android.

It’s no Evernote, but Keep is a great service for people who are already invested in the Google ecosystem—and it keeps getting better.

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HIT: Gmail Tabs

Over the summer, Google radically overhauled inbox organization in Gmail, introducing a tab system that automatically separates messages into categories such as social networking notices, promotions, and personal updates.

Not everyone likes the changes, of course, but for anyone who has spent time organizing email by hand, the new tabs help to automate some of that tedious process. If nothing else, having all your junk mail automatically tossed into the Promotions tab keeps you from having to spend your day sifting through deals and newsletters.

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Credit: Google
MISS: Ads in mail's clothing

Unfortunately, shortly after Google cleaned up our Gmail accounts with tabs, it started inserting advertisements into our inboxes that looked suspiciously like regular mail messages. These ads appear only under your Promotions tab, paired with an ad label, so it’s pretty clear what they are. Still, it’s somewhat annoying that after fighting so hard against filling your inbox with spam, the big G turned around and added its own fluff.

googlewallet
MISS: Google Wallet

Like so many other technology companies, Google wants to revolutionize how we pay at the cash register by turning our smartphones into wallets using NFC technology. Unfortunately for Google, three of the largest carriers—AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon—want to do the same thing. This competition resulted in a showdown in late 2013, with Google Wallet in one corner and the carriers’ Isis platform on the other. With NFC payments barely getting started in the United States, the battle is far from over. For now Isis appears to have the upper hand, owing to the carriers’ reluctance to include Google Wallet in the Android phones they sell.

boston dynamics big dog
HIT and MISS: The robot invasion

Google ended the year with a bang, acquiring robot maker Boston Dynamics to join a secretive robotics team headed by Android creator Andy Rubin. Nobody knows exactly what the company has planned for BD, but Google gets top marks for purchasing the world’s coolest robots short of Honda’s ASIMO and NASA’s Valkyrie.

Then again, Boston Dynamics doesn’t make friendly robots: It makes man-hunting, Terminator-style Cheetah-bots for the U.S. Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Project (DARPA). Many news sites are already suggesting that Google is closer than ever to becoming the real-life Skynet. All we’re saying is that if you see a Googlebot that looks like Arnold Schwarzenegger, run.

larrypage google io
MISS: Google I/O 2013

Okay, we get it. Google I/O is a developer’s show, and its keynote won’t necessarily be packed with dazzling product announcements and breathtaking stunts. But in stark contrast to the 2012 I/O keynote, this year’s conference kicked off with a tedious procession of talking heads dissecting the nitty-gritty details of Google’s software future—and the biggest (well, only) hardware announcement concerned a Samsung Galaxy S4 running stock Android.

Worst of all, the bizarro keynote ended with the poignant spectacle of Larry Page waxing alternately eloquent and incomprehensible to an ever-dwindling audience. Many attendees filed out of the hall as Page was speaking...and that’s just heartbreaking.