At Google, ‘responsibility’ — not new technology — will take center stage

A person dressed as the Android operating system mascot stands at Google's headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., in 2013.
A person dressed as the Android operating system mascot stands at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., in 2013.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)
The Washington Post

Google is about to wade into the debate over whether technology — and the time spent on devices — is harmful to people’s health. Rival tech titans Apple Inc. and Facebook Inc. have been slammed by that criticism, while Google has managed to dodge much of it.

At its annual developer conference, scheduled to kick off Tuesday in its hometown of Mountain View, Calif., Google — a unit of Alphabet Inc. — is set to announce a set of new controls for its Android operating system geared toward helping individuals and families manage the time they spend on mobile devices, according to a person familiar with the company’s thinking.

In his keynote address Tuesday, Chief Executive Sundar Pichai is expected to emphasize the theme of responsibility, the person said. Last year’s keynote was more focused on developments in artificial intelligence.

The anticipated shift in tone at the event reflects increased public skepticism and scrutiny of the technology industry as it reckons with the negative consequences of how its products are used by billions of people.


Some of the criticism centers on the suspected addictive nature of many devices and programs. In January, two groups of Apple shareholders asked that company to design products to fight phone addiction in children. Apple CEO Tim Cook has said he would keep children in his life away from social networks, and even Steve Jobs placed strict limitations on his children’s screen time. Last year, Facebook publicly admitted that using Facebook passively tends to put people in a worse mood, citing internal research as well as academic reports.

The manipulation of technology for disinformation has also rocked tech giants including Facebook and Google, prompting them to consider the role they play in society. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said the company “didn’t take a broad enough view of our responsibility” to society, in areas such as Russian interference and the protection of people’s data.

Google has been quieter than its counterparts, even as hoax videos have gone viral on its YouTube platform and as Google’s own search tools have been manipulated.

When it comes to family controls, Google is already a step ahead. Google offers Family Link, a suite of tools that enables parents to regulate how much time their children can spend on apps and to remotely lock their child’s device. FamilyLink gives parents weekly reports on children’s app usage and offers controls to approve the apps that kids download.

Those time-management controls go further than what is offered by rival Apple’s iOS mobile operating system. Apple offers “do not disturb” modes that limit an iPhone’s function overnight or while driving, but parents cannot trigger those modes on their kids’ devices.

Apple is expected to announce more features to help parents manage their kids’ use of devices and apps at its next developer conference in June, according to several analysts who follow the company. Inc., which uses a custom version of Android for its hardware, has since 2012 offered parents the option to set time limits for devices and block access to unapproved apps, movies or books. The company rolled out those features to all Android users in 2017. (Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is the owner of the Washington Post.)

Google still plans to emphasize artificial intelligence, according to the person. Google is set to announce additional capabilities of its voice-enabled Google Assistant that are intended to make the product more interactive and helpful at accomplishing tasks, the person said, and will introduce new tools for publishers to help surface authoritative search results.


Google is also planning to launch the latest version of the Android operating system, called Android P, which will be rolled out to billions of smartphones including Samsung and Huawei. An early iteration of Android P was released to developers and anyone who owns Google’s Pixel phones in early March.

P boasts a new look with more rounded corners on text boxes and menus and several technical improvements such as support for multiple cameras, the ability to gather indoor location data and improved fingerprint recognition. The company may also be working on gesture controls that are similar to features of the iPhone X, according to an image the company published on an official blog but later removed.

Google tends to name its operating systems after desserts, such as Nougat. P hasn’t gotten its sweet-themed name yet, but “Popsicle” is seen as the top contender: Google posted an Android P wallpaper for developers showing the treats.

Dwoskin and Tsukayama write for the Washington Post.