As I attended the Google I/O developers conference in San Francisco last week, I couldn't help but think back on the evolution of Google over the past 16 years.
The company, which near the end of the 20th century revolutionized the way we search for information on the Web, has grown into a juggernaut that reaches into every corner of our lives from our PCs, to our phones, to our living rooms, to our cars and -- now -- to our bodies.
Google's stated mission is to "organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful," but as I look at the company today, those words strike me as an understatement.
The totality of Google's product lines is staggering. To begin with, Google search -- its core product -- has fundamentally changed the way we acquire knowledge. There was a time when being "smart" correlated with knowing a lot. But today, largely thanks to Google, everyone has the potential to know just about anything. That doesn't make us smart, but it does make us knowledgeable. It's not uncommon, for example, for people with a disease to know more about their medical condition than the doctor who is treating them. Sure, the doctor may be better able to interpret the data, but the patient may very well have more raw information.
But Google's enormously successful search engine does more than provide users with information; revenue from search and related products contributes mightily to the more than $50 billion in annual revenue in recent years, giving the company an enormous war chest to invest in other products and services.
Google Fit, officially unveiled at last week's conference, is a technology platform that will enable app and device developers to share information based on data they collect via sensors or access to personal medical data. Initially, we're talking about relatively simple data such as how far a person has walked in a day, how far they've ridden their bicycle, how many reps they've done on a fitness machine or a chart of their heart rate over the course of a day.
But over time, we will have far more sophisticated sensors for blood pressure, blood sugar, iron level and so much more. We're not there yet, but there will come a time when we no longer have to have our blood drawn to and wait for lab results or go to a medical facility for an electrocardiogram or a stress test. Connected sensors will collect it in real time and send it to our screens and our medical providers.
Even now there are peripherals for smartphones that can collect all sorts of information, but the time will come when it's collected automatically by devices that we wear or have implanted in our bodies.
In a decade or so we will look back at Google Glass and those Android-powered smartwatches introduced last week from LG, Samsung and Motorola as primitive, just as we now look back at those PCs from the early 1980s as precursors to the technology that we now use. Still, you have to start somewhere and Google's current offerings -- along with whatever Apple, Microsoft and others likely announce soon -- will be seen as the opening chapters in what will become our totally quantified lives where we will have data on everything that affects our health and fitness.
Google's initial foray into the automotive world is sophisticated by today's standards, but will also seem primitive a few years from now when the challenges change dramatically. Starting this year, several automakers will start selling cars with Android Auto that will work with smartphones to provide a driver-friendly user interface to car navigation, information and entertainment systems. The heavy lifting will be done via software running on Android phones, but the carmakers will provide user interfaces, such as steering wheel controls, dash-mounted screens that work with the phone and a microphone for our voice commands. You don't even have to wait for some of this. The Pioneer system installed in my car three years ago already connects my car's microphone, speakers and steering wheel control to smartphones via Bluetooth.
The reason I call this primitive is because Google has articulated a much bigger vision for cars, culminating with self-driving cars that will enable the driver to fiddle with entertainment and information systems of all sorts, because it will no longer be necessary for drivers to keep their eyes on the road and their hands on the wheel -- those tasks will be carried out by Google-powered computers constantly exchanging information between your car and its surroundings and Google's servers.
All this information in the hands of one company is both thrilling and scary. It's thrilling because Google services are used for enormous good, but scary because of the potential for misuse by Google or governments that can abuse their power to access Google's data. Google is a company to watch, in more ways than one.
And, as if all this weren't enough, as I bicycled to a nearby coffee shop to finish this column, I was passed by several Google Shopping Express vans delivering products from Costco and other stores. Google knows what you buy and where you live.
Contact Larry Magid at email@example.com. Listen for his technology chats on KCBS-AM (740) weekdays at 3:50 p.m. Disclosure: Larry Magid is co-director of ConnectSafely.org, a non-profit Internet safety organization that receives financial support from Google.