Listen to this article now
Just a few days ago, Google held what initially promised to be a fairly low key “hardware” event dubbed #MadeByGoogle. By “low key,” I mean that the hype around it wasn’t exactly on par with what we might expect from Apple, for instance, or even Saleforce for that matter. The term “Hardware” isn’t exactly sexy, at least not when it comes to consumer electronics, and Google hasn’t traditionally been known for “making” anything the market would think of as “cool,” and yes, that includes Google Glass. (Great concept, cool prototype, but not exactly a huge hit.) Don’t get me wrong: Google is great at a lot of things. It’s just that it hasn’t been able to quite break out of its Googleness in recent years. Lots of great ideas and promising starts, but not a lot of big wins. All of this to say that as much as I like Google, and root for Google, and expect Google (or Alphabet) to continue to be a major player in tech, I had my “wait-and-see” hat on at the start of the event.
And yet… about twenty minutes into the day’s presentations, I realized, probably along with everyone else attending in person or virtually, that #MadeByGoogle wasn’t at all the kind of event many of us had expected it to be. I waited, and watched, and listened, and forty minutes into it, it occurred to me that #MadeByGoogle was everything the #AppleEvent held just a few weeks earlier should have been.
Take a moment to let that sink in: I just said that Google just had a cooler show-and-tell event than Apple. I actually said that, and yes, I am standing by it 100%.
It isn’t that Google blew my socks off or anything. I wasn’t overwhelmed. But I did lean forward and paid attention. I sat on the edge of my seat and caught myself thinking things like “wow, they’ve been busy,” and “this is really cool,” and “that’s actually clever.” I even found myself wondering “why doesn’t Apple have something like this?” That took me by surprise. I was delighted. I felt a sense of excitement.
Compare and contrast with how I felt during the new iPhone and Apple Watch presentations, which delivered incremental improvements at best, and a few annoying surprises like the elimination of my beloved earphone jack for reasons vaguely related to “courage” … or something.
In short: The Apple event was disappointing and uninspired. Google’s event felt like a shot of espresso on a cool spring day bathed in a warm ray of sunshine. The question I have been asking myself over and over again these last few days has been “why?” Why did I feel this way? The main two answers to that question, or at least the two that keep bubbling up every time I ask it, are: Google finally gets it, and I finally get Google. Let’s dig into that for a few minutes.
What does Google finally get?
Watching Google these last few years, it was obvious that it wanted to become more than just “Google.” The “Alphabet” identity thing, its experimentation with Glass, its investments in AI, the whole Android OS focus… Google was growing into something this whole time, but it didn’t really seem to know exactly what it was growing into. One limb wanted to go right, another wanted to go left… Was Google going to grow into a bigger, broader Google? Was Google going to turn itself into a loosely connected ecosystem of technology confederates? Was Google going to be a software company or was it going to try and transcend that identity? Lots of tests and trials and experiments and promising starts that went nowhere.
Somewhere along the way though, it must have started to figure out where it wanted to go, because what it showed us all the other day wasn’t random. Google knows where it is going and what it wants to grow into. Its madebygoogle.com website pretty much spells it out right there at the top of its page: Phones, Connected Home, Virtual Reality, Streaming Devices. Google is now a physical technology company. It wants you to use its smartphone, it wants to help you turn your home or office (or both) into a smart home or office (or both), it wants to be your media hub, and it even wants to be your first VR goggle. In other words, Google wants to be in your pocket, in your hand, in your living room, in your kitchen, on your desk, at your laptop, and on your face. Not only that, but it wants to accomplish this in exactly the same way Apple would (and should) want to accomplish this: with cleverly built products designed to look and feel friendly, beautiful, and cool.
Pixel, Google’s smartphone, could pass for an iPhone but for the absence of its home button. Its camera is reportedly much better than any other smartphone on the market. It comes with a built-in AI assistant that apparently works a lot better than Siri, and can analyze not only a user’s request but what that user has pulled up onscreen (for context), which is pretty damn clever. Google made no secret that it is going after Apple when it reminded its audience that its phones come with a headphone jack (applause), and that users won’t ever have to worry about getting a “storage is full” notification. Price point: similar to Apple’s.
It was particularly telling that Google led with a demo of its AI, by the way. We will be circling back to that topic in another post soon, I expect.
Next, Google goes after Amazon Echo with Google Home: its voice-activated speaker powered by (again) Google Assistant. Note that the AI smoothly transitions from the phone in your hand to the scented candle-inspired plastic (and color-customizable) sculpture sitting on your coffee table… or desk… or night stand… or kitchen counter. Google Home lets you search, play music, control your lights and your thermostat and your smart appliances, and so on. Good price point too. Slightly lower than Echo.
Then comes Google Wi-fi, which allows you to place wi-fi beacons throughout your home or office to optimize signal range based on your needs and habits. Clever retail trick: You can by a pre-packaged set of three. (Apple should have thought of that first.)
Then comes Daydream View, Google’s VR headset. Instead of going with the usual black or white plastic, Google went with a more textured, natural fabric look, effectively turning what is still an otherwise alien and socially foreboding object (that sits awkwardly on your face in public settings) into a softer, more organic, and (dare I say it?) social object. Not everyone will find it to their liking, but skinning a VR goggle or headset with fabric finally turns it into a fashion accessory in its own right, and one that users are probably far more likely to carry around with them and slip on in public places. My guess is that it will also be far more appealing to urban users and women, who might still be turned off by the coldness of raw plastic, no matter how glossy and pretty. I expect the next iteration of fashion-forward VR headset to sport some wood textures. (It’s all about making the unfamiliar seem familiar and safe, after all. And less goofy looking. Natural textures tend to make objects feel far less threatening and alien.)
Last but not least, Google upgraded its Chromecast line of products, with Chromecast, Chromecast Ultra (4K ultra HD/HDR), and Chromecast Audio (for your speakers). Less sexy than the rest, but as far as puzzle pieces go, Chromecast fits pretty well in this new connected home/connected life ecosystem that Google is in the process of building.
So what does Google finally get? The way I interpret it, Google wants to be your technology company. It wants fill the gaps left open by Apple, Sony, Samsung and LG. Does this mean that we should expect to see Google washer-dryers at some point? Or Google TVs? Maybe more the latter than the former, but that’s a different phase. For now, Google wants to be the gateway tech company that will transition you from using your phone’s keyboard to your phone’s AI, the tech company that will finally bring you into the smart home era, the tech company that finally makes you purchase your very first VR headset that isn’t just for gaming, and the technology company that connects your digital life with your physical world in the most natural way yet. It is working very hard to eliminate every barrier of adoption to a new generation of technologies that it can identify, from price and complexity to less tangible obstacles like uncertainty, doubt, even fear.
No, I will not comment or prognosticate on the future of Google cars (not yet anyway), but this seems like a good time to check that box for later discussions. Google is certainly laying the groundwork for something there, and it will be big.
Anyway, Google doesn’t just want to power your devices and searches anymore. It isn’t just a layer. Google wants to occupy a physical place in your everyday world and be part of it, on one level in the way that other consumer electronic brands have already been part of it for years, and on another, in ways that no other brand has managed to accomplish quite yet.
Google is now a legitimate consumer electronics company, and one that appears to be looking to redefine what consumer electronics can do. That is a pretty serious shift from where Google was just a year ago, and it is worth taking a moment to appreciate how far the company has come in such a short amount of time.
What do I finally get about Google?
Google isn’t adrift anymore. For a while, it seemed like it was a little rudderless. It tried social and gave up. It tried AR (sort of) with Glass, and gave up too. That’s changed. Google has decided where it was going, and it is going there.
Also, Google was always an idea company. Coming up with cool concepts and building something around them was never Google’s problem. Google reminds me a lot of IDEO in the way that it can go from ideation to prototype in very little time. It was that last mile that Google wasn’t really good at: Turning its prototypes into viable products… which meant understanding what their products even were, or how they would be used, and by whom, and why. Google Glass always seemed like more of a prototype to me than a real product. Google Plus should have also been put to better use as a social but functional collaboration product to compete against Microsoft than a social channel to compete against Facebook. That inability to close that last mile was starting to worry me, to the point where any new product unveiled by Google seemed like a self-fulfilling prophecy right from the start: Big launch, influencer-driven hype cycle, “okay, now what?” deflation phase, and the inevitable defunding and reassignment of bits and pieces of the project team. This appears to have changed. What I saw last week wasn’t just an idea company anymore. It was an idea company that knows where it is going, understands how to turn prototypes into products now, and has figured out its go-to-market strategy. Google finally figured out how to close that last mile.
What I finally get about Google is that sometime in the last year, it stopped being a gifted teen and finally reached adulthood. I don’t mean that in a patronizing way. Google is one of the most impressive and significant companies of our time… But it was still a little green in some respects. Well, it isn’t green anymore, and I, for one, look forward to what comes next.
What I also get about Google that I didn’t get a year ago is that it isn’t just operating in its own little world of invention and research. Google has shown us that isn’t afraid to become the next Apple, or something even bigger and cooler, and that’s a pretty big realization.
One last thing: Will it work?
It’s hard to tell what happens now. Google Home, Google Wi-fi, Chromecast… yes. Those are easy plays, and there is no reason to think that they won’t find a market. The bigger challenge is Pixel. The smartphone market isn’t growing super fast in the US, sales are pretty flat, and the market is already saturated with established brands. For a number of reasons that still apply, Microsoft failed to scale in the smartphone market even with a pretty decent and unique product, and that doesn’t bode well. It is likely that Pixel, while a great looking product with clear selling points, could simply not provide enough of a reason for smartphone users to switch from Samsung or Apple to a Google-made phone. Apathy and incremental feature improvements could get in the way of adoption at scale.
Google might have caught a lucky break though: consumers worried about their Samsung phones starting fires could flock to Pixel as a safer alternative. As much as I like Samsung, they might have inadvertently handed Google a better opportunity to break into the smartphone market than it could have hoped for, and it might end up costing them a hefty chunk of market share. I guess we’ll have to see what happens over the next few months. In the meantime, yes, I do think Google might have scored a major coup with the release of this first batch of products. It may be too soon for Apple to lose sleep over any of this, but they definitely should take note. Google is on the track now, and it appears more than ready to become a real challenger.