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Google in 2014: The World Is (Almost) Its Oyster

When I interviewed Larry Page and Sergey Brin for their first ever Time magazine story, the then 27-year-old Google founders started talking up a grandiose mission: to organize the world's information.
This was at the turn of the century, when they'd just moved to an office park and could walk unknown on the street. I met them again at Burning Man 2000 when they showed up incognito in body paint at Time's RV for a drink; it took me 10 awkward minutes to recognize them.
See also: 7 Reasons 2013 Was the Year of Google
Organize all the world's information? These dorky-looking kids were geniuses of the algorithm, admittedly, but minnows compared to the might of Yahoo, the most popular search engine. Google had no revenue and a business model at which everyone else had failed: Internet advertising. Page and Brin seemed to spend an awful lot of time building printers out of Legos, hacking hardwired screensavers and getting massages. I was rooting for them — they were ridiculously charismatic for geeks my age — but Yahoo was a daunting enough opponent. You want to conquer information itself? Sure, guys.
As we enter 2014, the problem with that mission isn't that it's grandiose. It's that it's redundant. It doesn't even begin to encompass what Google is doing already, let alone where the company plans to be. Driverless cars everywhere, a voice-activated smartphone on every eye: These are now commonplace notions, road-tested reality at the Googleplex. The really out-there thing is to be part of the Calico project that is attempting to conquer death, or build artificial intelligence, or the newly-acquired subsidiary that builds robots that run faster than the fastest human alive.
See also: Google Wants You to Live 170 Years
Organize all the world's information? That job is largely done, except for a few holdouts (missing pages in Google Books; tiny blank spots on Google Maps; a certain social network). Organize the world's advertising? Pretty much done, with a brilliant and creepy pay-per-emotion plan for the future of advertising. Organize the world? That seems a rather limiting ambition for a company that controls a majority of smartphones, email, browsers and wearable computers already.
Organize and extend every aspect of life itself, including the creation of new forms of it? Now you're talking.
See also: The Future of Advertising: 'Pay-Per-Gaze' Is Just the Beginning
Page is an entirely different kind of CEO compared to the 27-year-old version. He is a ruthless and determined executive. He has that Jobsian fire in the belly (gained, partly, from mentorship from the great Jobs himself). Brin is the equally Jobsian, insanely great ideas guy, whose Google X Labs is tasked with researching everything from moon landings to space elevators on down.
Page and Brin are barely 40. With Eric Schmidt focused on being the public face of the company, there is no close contestant for the founders' absolute control and there are fewer demands on their time. Their best works are easily ahead of them. They have three, four or (depending how much death they conquer) far more decades of leadership and research left. If the thought of what they could do with Google before they retire doesn't give you shivers, both good and bad ones, your imagination may need some exercise.
Consider what Google appears to be cooking up already for early 2014: a Nexus set-top box with Kinect-like motion sensors. This is the device that replaces the ill-fated Google TV. Possible features include a touchpad remote, voice-activated channel-surfing, Minority Report-like control of the screen with gestures, and instant videoconferencing with anyone on Google Hangouts. If all of that pans out, watch out Apple TV and Roku and other set-top boxes controlled via boring old push-button remotes.
But Google isn't content with one device in the TV market. At the low end it has Chromecast, a popular $35 plug-and-play dongle that connects to the HDMI port on your TV and mirrors your smartphone, tablet or laptop. Chromecast has only been available in the U.S. so far, with a limited number of apps. It will be released internationally in 2014, and developers will be able to add Chromecast functionality to their apps for the first time.
See also: Chromecast Is What Google TV Should Have Been
Speaking of devices that should gain user interest in 2014, there's the Google Chromebook. According to Digitimes Research, the lightweight online-only laptop could ship as many as 8 million units in 2014. Samsung's Chromebook is already a bestseller on Amazon; HP offers two flavors of the machine; Dell will sell its first Chromebook early in the New Year, for $300, aimed at the education market.
The only company not doing particularly well out of Chromebook sales, it seems, is Google itself; the Chromebook Pixel was a beautiful HD touchscreen laptop, but at $1299, too high-end for a netbook. But if the Chrome OS continues to gain in favor across the PC world, the company still wins in market share. Those 8 million units would give Google 5% of the global PC market.
Then there's Android, the world's most widely-used smartphone OS. Given the speed that Google produced Android 4.4 — teasing it in May, announcing the name KitKat in September and releasing it in October — look for the company to move equally fast with the 4.5 release. We don't know much about it yet, least of all the name — which will begin with the letter L and signify some kind of dessert. (Android Lemon Meringue Pie or Android Lollipop, anybody?)
We do know that Google is devoting a lot of resources to improving voice search in Android. A good chunk of the company's presentation on KitKat was spent detailing the tweaks the company had already made on voice recognition, boasting that KitKat was 20% more accurate than its predecessor. It's already smarter and more responsive than Siri; in the next version, voice search may become the number one reason to buy an Android phone.
Increasingly, and not just at Google, the mobile OS is the tail wagging the dog. In Google's case, it may be that the lessons learned from the Android experience — particularly the Google Now cards that display common search information — are starting to infect the crown jewels; search itself. That's the lesson of this fascinating presentation from November, given by SEO expert Peter Meyers, who has been studying Google's search tweaks:

The Face of Google in 2014 from Peter Meyers
After two years of being available only to Explorers — Google's name for the developers and other early adopters who were able to wangle an invite and were willing to pay $1,500 for the device — Google Glass should make it to the consumer market in 2014. For what price, we still don't know, but Brin said back in 2012 that the consumer devices should cost "significantly less" than the Explorer price.
Three questions spring from that. Will the Explorers feel they've been given short shrift, once they find out they've paid so much for as little as a few months of being ahead of the game? More importantly, how significantly less a price does it have to be in order to lure in enough customers? And thirdly, how many customers is enough?
See also: 10 Places You Can't Use Google Glass
The famous mystery Google Barges in the San Francisco Bay and Portland, Maine, turned out to be exclusive, invite-only floating showrooms for Google X products, and the most likely reason for building one of those right about now is to sell Glass. This suggests that Google is opting for two previously-used strategies here: pitching to the high end of the market first, and making something appear exclusive by limiting access.
Which in turn suggests that we're unlikely to see Google Glass hit the market for much less than $1,000 — just low enough to put it within reach of a wider range of early adopters, and into aspirational territory for everyone else. Whether society has an equal and opposite reaction — banning Google Glass from more bars, getting angrier about "Glassholes" — remains to be seen.
But we should find out, one way or another, in 2014.
Google Driverless Cars are stuck in something of a holding pattern for the moment. The project is slowly gathering insurmountable proof that they are safer than human drivers. The company is waiting for the right regulatory environment to pop into existence, which may require a change in speed limit laws. (Schmidt has said that the biggest barrier to driverless car adoption is the fact that they're forced to max out at local speed limits, something human drivers almost never do.)
2014 may not be the year of the driverless car, then, although you're bound to see more of them on the road in states where it's street-legal, California and Nevada. It also won't be the year of Google's nascent anti-death project, space elevators and most other things on the skunkworks docket. Google, as should be clear by now, is a company built to run marathons, not sprint.
The best we can hope for is that the company will pull something out of its back pocket to surprise us. It almost surprised us with the Google barges (and would have gotten away with it too, if not for a pesky reporter). I've heard rumors that the company is working on an Oculus Rift-type virtual reality headset. (It did just poach Microsoft's top augmented reality engineer, Blaise Agüera y Arcas.) Releasing such a headset, at low Oculus Rift-like prices, would make a nice compliment to Google Glass.
Despite the disruptive effects of being billionaires, of having to deal with national politics and NSA intrusion, Page and Brin have successfully retained the spirits of those 27-year-old geeks with audacious ambition and a strong desire to show us the next shiny thing. However good a year the company has in 2014, there seems little doubt it will surpass itself in 2015.
Image: Justin Sullivan, Getty Images News

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