google-io-2008.gifIt usually takes a long time for a developer conference to attract a critical mass of interest and talent, but Google, in the first year of its I/O event, has managed to create a must-do item on every ISV’s calendar.

What Google brings to the table, of course, is not necessarily its product portfolio (although it has that) but a massive audience which it has built up through its search engine. If its products were already as successful as its search engine promoting the developer tools could be unnecessary. But I/O 2008 marks an important juncture in the Web firm’s history: this is the moment when it becomes less of a consumer resource and more of an axis around which the entire IT industry would orbit.

Google would never put it this way. The most revealing thing about I/O is not the black-and-binary dot T-shirts, the iPhone-like Android prototype or the marquee customer, MySpace. It’s the transition away from branded offerings to standalone names: Gears instead of Google Gears, OpenSocial instead Google OpenSocial. This is a posture meant to facilitate a more community-oriented mindset among developers, but don’t kid yourself. Google will be ultimately responsible for the success or failure of these tools as application enablers.

In some ways I/O 2008 reminds me of JavaOne, but despite Sun Microsystems’ partnership with Google there are some obvious differences. With Google, for one, the network is not only the computer; the browser is the operating system. And when you’re primarily focused on hosting applications online via cloud computing, there’s no need to invite Intel and HP (or Sun) to talk about their hardware. Instead, I/O is more like a second-line launch for Gears, Android, OpenSocial and AppEngine. For ISVs, the conference is the equivalent of Google’s grand opening for business partners and customers.

While the Android demo got a lot of the initial attention, it won’t mean much to the outside world until OEMs start producing some actual handsets. Gears is important, because it’s in the running with Adobe’s AIR as a way of creating apps that run offline as well as on. OpenSocial’s new REST (representational state transfer) API is interesting, but will be more interesting once social networking becomes a more mobile activity. The big deal is the opening up (and pricing details) of AppEngine, which will be yardstick by which other cloud computing efforts (including Amazon’s EC2/S3) are measured in the long term. For Google, the cloud is its zone. If it can’t own the market there, its other tools will be merely nice add-ons in someone else’s zone.

IT managers will start paying more attention to events like I/O once they have decided whether they want their applications and infrastructure to live in the cloud, which may also have a bearing on whether more developers do, too. Right now you’ve got many ISVs who are still rooted in the traditional Microsoft world of desktop-oriented programming of traditional productivity and other business software. Google is painting a different picture, of an ISV that focuses on mobility, social networking and working outside the OS. Showing up at future I/O conferences could end up saying a lot about the kind of developer you want to be.

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