Google Dreams of Hardware

Google’s not as easy to describe as other tech giants. Apple makes sleek consumer gadgets, Facebook is a social media platform, and Amazon delivers basically anything you want to your front door. Yes, these companies are all doing other things now, due to the potential of burgeoning industries, increasing competition and the relentless ambition of people like Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos. But I think it’s safe to say that most people understand and can describe these core businesses without much thought.

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Mark Zuckerberg, probably announcing the next step in his plan for world domination

When it comes to Google, it’s a little more difficult to immediately encompass what the company does. It’s best known as a search engine, but most people use it for much more than that: Gmail, Android operating systems, and the newly rebranded G Suite (aka Google apps like Docs and Forms). Google also has hardware – Chromebooks, Nexus phones, Chromecasts, etc. (The list doesn’t really go on, but it’s not short either.) And yet Google has lagged behind other companies when it comes to releasing consumer products that exude that “wow” factor that companies like Apple and Amazon have successfully been able to produce.

Obviously, Google’s competitors aren’t perfect either. Apple has been popular for years but everyone knows about the recent chatter that its iPhones aren’t as innovative as they used to be. As for Amazon, remember the Fire Phone? Exactly, neither does anyone else. It’s safe to say that both companies have had some trip ups and flops.

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Not Amazon’s best moment

But Amazon has had great success with the hit Kindle e-reader, and last year released the much applauded Amazon Echo, an artificially intelligent, voice-powered personal assistant device. Suddenly, Google found itself trailing behind in one of the hottest areas in tech today. But tomorrow, it’s slated to release Home, the competitor to Echo, at an event in San Francisco. Obviously, it’s better late than never.

Why hasn’t Google churned out more hit products? The company is known for its intense and secret labs where engineers and visionaries work on dozens of initiatives at a time, including “moonshots.” Google Glass was all the hype a few years ago, until the project was shuttered after numerous issues, including widespread public concerns over privacy and legality. Google was also one of the earliest companies to develop automated driving technology, but hasn’t yet produced concrete results from its endeavor. Now Uber has already begun road-testing autonomous cars in Pittsburg, even though the start-up was only founded seven years ago.

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RIP, Google Glass. For now at least…

Google also bought Nest Labs in 2014, seemingly getting into the internet-of-things home device market. And even with this acquisition, there was no clear realization by those at Google to create a standalone personal assistant gadget.

According to reports, the internal system that Google operates within is not conducive to breakthroughs – departments often don’t interact, and good ideas fall through the cracks. It also pursues too many ideas at once, resulting in a “lack of focus.”

Does it matter that Google isn’t great at hardware? Maybe they don’t need to be – they’ve designed a bunch of apps that work great on iPhones, and are aiming to make Google Assistant, the conversation driven, virtual personal assistant, a “connective tissue” for all your devices. As David Pierce from Wired writes, “Google’s product isn’t the phone, it’s what you do with the phone.” In many ways Google’s business model has proven this to be true. Android phones are still the most widely used smartphone in the world, equipped with Google’s OS and probably several key apps (Gmail, Chrome Browser, etc.). This applies to computers as well – regardless of whether you use a Mac or PC, Google reigns supreme in search, email, web browser.

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Gmail app, on an iPhone

And perhaps it’s not too late for Google to “catch up” to Amazon, in terms of hardware. In fact, maybe “catching up” isn’t even the correct term. Sure, Amazon Echo has rave reviews and was the first stand-alone AI product to hit the market. But despite its hype and 24/7 news coverage, AI is still a fairly new technology, and not many have adopted it for daily use yet. I don’t know anyone who actually owns an Echo. I don’t even know many people who regularly use Google Voice or Siri – old fashioned typing is by far still the preferred method. Because of this, Google may still be able to win over the market, if the Home proves to be a viable competitor to Echo and all of its strengths.

But Echo is quite a device, with most of its intelligence stored in the cloud, thanks to the power of Amazon Web Services. It’s also being incorporated as an app for GE Appliances, allowing people to operate an with some simple commands. Pretty impressive, but it’s possible that Google has something better.

But who really knows what will happen in the unpredictable world of tech? At the Google event tomorrow (Oct. 4), the world will know what Google has been cooking up in secrecy for the past number of months.

8 comments

  1. Nice post! It hadn’t even occurred to me about the Google Glass thing until you mentioned it. I remember it being such a huge deal back in the day and how everybody was talking about how revolutionary it was going to be. Then it just sort of disappeared (of course now there’s the new Snapchat glasses, who knows if that’s going to be much better). I also hadn’t really realized it until this post, but Google really doesn’t have much success with hardware. I guess people consider Android phones Google hardware, even though it’s only Google’s software that’s being used. You make a good point, though, that does it really even matter if Google’s not good at hardware?

  2. Great post! Since in my mind I think of Google as the ultimate tech super power, it is strange for me to think that they truly have not had success with hardware. I remember my freshman year a kid in my intro to business class had signed up to trail run the Google Glass. I thought this was going to be such a game changer, and I remember being so jealous of this kid. However, it just sort of fizzled away due to a huge amount of privacy concerns. Honestly though, I do not think that Google even has to worry about the fact they are not successful in hardware, they are successful in general. Their search engine is the go two information platform world wide. They have had so many success in other arenas that I do not think that they have to get into hardware to be competitive. Google is great at what they do, and in my opinion they do it better than anyone else, and I think that is enough. However, I have no doubt that with the amount of project Google is involved with that they could have something revolutionary up their sleeves, which will blow us all away. That very well may be hardware.

  3. rohansuwarna · ·

    This was a really nice blog post! I never really thought of Google’s hardware struggles compared to the success of Amazon and Apple. However, with the four companies you discussed, they all dominate their primary software industry. Thus, they need to transition into hardware to dominate other companies. I do believe Apple does have the advantage in the hardware industry and Amazon and Google will need to come up with consistently good gadgets if they want to compete. I can also see Facebook creating devices as well in the future!

  4. Google does software, data and algorithms really well. What it doesn’t do quite as well is physical design. I have heard good things about the new Google phone, but engineers (i.e. people who work at Google) aren’t always in tune with the way the rest of the world want to interact with technology. It’s that “user friendliness” (at both the individual and the network level) that Google seems to always miss. I’d consider a Pixel phone, since I’m probably moving on from apple in the next iteration.

  5. polmankevin · ·

    Google is probably the most fascinating company of the 21st century. Everything from the culture of the tech giant to the enormous food pantries in their headquarters seem to raise eyebrows. As Professor Kane said, the company struggles with physical design. I find it really interesting how you said that good ideas seem to fall through the cracks at google. It makes you wonder if the outrageous success of their core business (adwords) hurts the innovative culture that the company is trying to create. Too many ideas at once definitely leads to a lack of focus, and this lack of focus diminishes a companies ability to create breakthrough products. Also, the success of their core business might sweep some of their other successes under the rug. Physical products that don’t perform well seem even less impressive measured against the $52 billion revenue that came directly from google.com. Maybe google is hiring too many young coders and not enough retail oriented employees.

  6. gabcandelieri · ·

    Great post! Ironically enough I just tweeted about the Pixel phone and the inevitable comparisons many people are drawing between Google’s new product and the iPhone. The articles I noticed highlighting the Pixel phone launch discuss how Google advertised the product by making not so subtle jabs at the iPhone. I definitely understand that in light of Apple’s domination of the smartphone market, Google must differentiate itself from its competition. I believe the company is trying to be completely transparent by communicating the obvious comparisons they know are going through their consumers’ heads; hence the passive aggressive digs at the iPhone 7’s lack of a headphone jack and painful ‘storage full’ pop-ups iPhones are known for. I also thought it was worth it to mention Google’s Project Ara, the first modular phone with swappable slots for cameras, speakers, e-ink screen etc. Looks like Google has a few tricks up their sleeves in upcoming smartphone innovation…

  7. michaelahoff · ·

    The Fire phone was a great call back. Always funny to see tech giants just whiff on stuff like that. Professor Kane’s comment on how Google misses the boat on interface and Katie’s point on how Google’s structure hurts them at points are fascinating as well. It’d be interesting to see an expose on to why those things are true.

  8. Good post. I have seen in previous posts the mentioning of Pixel the new phone they have published. I think it is quite interesting to see that how google is trying to step up in the smartphone race. But I don’t agree with the statement that they produce bad hardware products. I think that their marketing strategy is not being quite good, and the positioning of its products is not being the best. Taking out the failure of the Google glass, most of the hardware of Google hasen’t been bad. For example the Nexus line wasn’t bad at all, in my opinion Nexus five was the best movie phone in relation to price/quality, only disputed by the One Plus One. The problem is that nowadays, in the mobile industry, in order to make a splash on the market you need to have a Flagship, a very expensive, “very high” tech product that amazes everyone, that is what is pixel about.
    Finally I would add that I also read about project ARA, ALPHABET has shut down project ARA, so i think google is stepping out of the modular hardware bussines.

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