In the past, one thing that’s always separated Google from its rivals has been the ability to use Google services across many platforms. Whether you owned an iPhone, an iPad, a Mac, or a Windows PC, you always had access to Google services like Search, Maps, and Docs. Of course, Google would prefer that you use Android and Chromebooks, but that rarely felt like a requirement.
At this year’s Google I/O conference, we’re starting to see a different strategy emerge. Google is now making the case that if you want the full Google experience, you need to use Android devices and Chromebooks together. In other words, Google is taking a page from the Apple playbook, and pushing users to lock themselves in.
Shackles on your wrists
Android Wear is a prime example. By design, Google’s smartwatch platform only works with Android phones. It relies heavily on Android’s actionable notifications—which let you do things like reply to a message or delete an email—and puts them directly on your wrist. On stage, Google also demonstrated how you could use a smartwatch to authenticate an Android phone or Chromebook, preventing you from having to enter a PIN or password when the watch is paired over Bluetooth. In another example, we saw how an Android Wear user could send recipe instructions from a smartphone app to the watch, with the app following along as the user moved through each step.
Google’s automotive efforts, dubbed Android Auto, will follow a similar track, letting Android phone users view and control apps from their car entertainment systems. Like Android Wear, it’ll integrate with the notification system that’s built into Android, letting you quickly respond to phone calls and text messages by voice.
Google also announced a couple new capabilities for Chromebooks. When the next major version of Android arrives this fall, Chromebook users will get to see notifications for text messages, phone calls and low battery warnings from an Android phone. Though it’s unclear why these features wouldn’t work on Chrome for Windows or Mac, there was no mention of them expanding beyond Chromebooks.
Android on your TV
Even Google’s Chromecast, a $35 TV streaming device designed to work with iOS, Android and Chrome, is getting an Android-exclusive feature. In several weeks, select Android phones will be able to mirror the phone’s display on the big screen. This will allow Android users to quickly show off photos and videos from their phones, and run apps like Google Earth.
Android TV, Google’s other big announcement, also has a couple of extra hooks for Android users. For gamers, Google Play Games can save progress from a game on your phone or tablet, and let you pick up where you left off on your TV. (Google Play Games is also available on iOS, but developer support is weak given that Apple has its own gaming service.) Android Wear users will also be able to control Android TV from their wrists.
Trapped on an open platform
Lock-in isn’t entirely a bad thing. Many of the features described above simply couldn’t exist if Google didn’t control the underlying platforms. (Apple is making a similar pitch with iOS 8 and Mac OS X Yosemite, with features like the ability to answer iPhone calls from an iPad or Mac.)
The downside is that as these platforms expand to more devices, and become even more connected, it becomes harder to switch as your needs change. Moving to a different smartphone platform is hard; it’s harder still when you also have a tablet running the same platform. But it’s nearly impossible when your car, your watch, your tablet, your laptop, your phone and your TV are all tied to a single company’s services.
And that, of course, is the idea: The deeper you commit to Google, the more powerful your devices become. Just remember that power always comes at a cost.