Don't dismiss Google's low-key strategy

Expectations were high for Google's CES keynote, but don't be misled by the low-key reality

There is much about life that geeks don't get. Managing expections is high on the list. So when Google failed to announce the Google PC, Google Cube, Google Hypersonic Transport or Google Universe at its CES keynote, the nerds in the audience were miserable: those on stage were mystified at that misery.

To be fair, what did get revealed — a call for standards and support in the developing world, paid-for video and a bundle of free PC software (Google Pack) — would look particularly pallid under any circumstances, and comparing it with the febrile media speculation beforehand did it no favours. This is the keynote effect: you can't tie a major launch to a date outside your control, so you have to scoop up what you've got and mix it up with the vision thing.

Put that to one side. Google Pack is more significant than it looks. It isn't just a collection of so-so free software that you've either got already — Google Earth, Firefox — or wouldn't have on your system if they paid you. It's an upgrade channel, a path straight to your desktop. Microsoft has one with Windows Update; Google wants the same. Expect this to develop rapidly, with many more options such as Open Office — too big, too many implications for the first release — and plenty of pre-installs on new computers.

This benefits users, who find software selection and update maintenance a time consuming and error-prone chore. It benefits software vendors, who get a bit of the Google tinsel and a managed upgrade channel. It benefits Google, which becomes that bit more indispensable and more firmly ingrained as the trusted provider of good value, no gotchas products. It also means that when the Google PC does happen, people will know what they're getting because they've been using it all along.

But it could all go wrong. It's hard to know what Google is doing when it bundles two IM clients in the same package except to see it as an indication of two incompatible agendas within the company. And the Symantec Norton antivirus software with its subscription model is hardly in keeping with the "free for ever" policy of the rest of the programs.

Don't be evil, sure, but don't be banal either. That's a reasonable expectation — surely Google can manage that.