Google has set the stage for the biggest battle yet in the technology world, unveiling a series of tools and services designed to allow the search giant to compete directly with Apple for control of the nascent but hugely lucrative connected devices market.

Google kicked off its annual developers’ conference on Wednesday with a slew of announcements and product launches. Perhaps the most high-profile was a comprehensive upgrade of the Android operating system – the software that powers the mobile devices used by roughly one billion people around the world.

But beyond the headline announcement, Google also showcased several new platforms and services designed to expand its reach into everything from cars to smartwatches to fitness-tracking devices. The tools echo in many ways similar ones released earlier this year by Apple in a push to become the dominant middleman in those very same industries.

“We are living in amazing times, so we want to talk about the mobile momentum we see,” said Sundar Pichai, the Google senior vice-president in charge of Android, Chrome and apps.

“More importantly, we are beginning to think and evolve our platforms beyond mobile.”

During a three-hour keynote presentation, Google executives lifted the curtain on numerous software platforms that allow manufacturers and app developers to build non-traditional technology services.

Among the products unveiled were Google Fit (a health and fitness platform), Android Auto (which brings the popular operating system to cars) and Android TV.

Many of these products seem to mirror similar offerings recently released by Google’s chief rival, Apple. For example, at the iPhone-maker’s own developers’ conference earlier this month, the company boasted of its own fitness software platform, HealthKit, and a tool called CarPlay that offers drivers a safer way to use their iPhones in the car.

“Everything right down to the way the performance was scripted mirrored what we saw from Apple,” said Neil Bearse, associate director of marketing at Queen’s School of Business.

“The next stage of tech is everything … they’re aiming for the final frontier of your car, your house …”

Like Apple, Google also unveiled more tools to streamline the experience across multiple Android-based devices, such as smartphones and tablets. Because Google lets anyone customize Android and doesn’t control the hardware its operating system runs on, the way Apple does, the company has faced criticism that the Android experience often varies wildly from device to device.

“Qualitatively, Apple is in a position of advantage simply because it has more control over hardware,” independent technology analyst Carmi Levy said. “It isn’t always easy to get your hardware partners to play ball with you, so you can end up with various conflicting standards. It doesn’t always work on one brand the same way it does on another.”

Google – which is, from a revenue perspective, primarily an advertising company – risks an onslaught of user concerns about the privacy implications of expanding its software reach into the world of health and fitness apps. Conscious of this potential advantage, Apple recently made a point to note its own heightened privacy features at its developer conference.

But in terms of sheer volume, Google has a significant advantage over its rival. The company’s Android operating system now powers the majority of mobile devices around the world (but because Apple owns the entirety of its hardware offerings, it still generates far more profit from mobile sales than almost any other company).

In the fight for connected device dominance, the companies’ strategies are markedly different.

Whereas Apple’s mobile product lineup has always had a razor-sharp focus, Google tends to design and announce myriad product types and categories, and then quietly retire those that don’t catch on with consumers.

Indeed, one of Google’s announcements this week, Android TV, appears to overlap significantly in function with another Google product, the Chromecast set-top box.

“You get the sense that, in Apple’s boardroom, they would put those two products together and shoot one of them,” said Queen’s Mr. Bearse.

The Globe and Mail
Published Wednesday, Jun. 25 2014, 6:57 PM EDT
Last updated Wednesday, Jun. 25 2014, 6:57 PM EDT