It’s probably fair to say that when most people think of Google, they think of a big online/software company. There’s been a lot more thought about the company’s excursions into the world of hardware lately, with a large part of that thanks to the much-talked about Google Glass. Even more recently, the focus on Google’s hardware ambitions has sharply spiked with two announcements.
First of all, Google acquired Nest, the company behind the popular Internet-connected thermostat and smoke alarm. This acquisition, which just cleared the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, brings new design expertise into the mothership, both on the hardware and software side. (It also has the side effect of irritating iPhone fans who were also fans of Nest, but that’s a different story.)
Some (including myself) speculated that Motorola might be able to fill the role of hardware design gurus, when Google acquired it in 2012. But just this past week, Google turned around and sold Motorola to China’s Lenovo — after keeping a majority of the former handset powerhouse’s patents, of course. There’s already speculation that Lenovo will manufacture a forthcoming Nexus handset as part of this deal, but at this point, it’s hard to tell what’s what; after all, the deal between Google and Lenovo hasn’t even officially been approved in either country..
Google says it’s going to be leaving the Nest team alone to do their thing, but it will be interesting to see how the relationship develops down the road. On the upside, the clout that a large company like Google can provide may well help the Nest team’s ability to create newer and better products.
The downside: Google will now have access to more information about what you do in the privacy of your own home. That could be as simple as knowing what temperature you like to keep your house at, but it could also keep track of how many times your smoke alarm goes off — a sobering thought for the next time you have to buy insurance. And if the thought of Google knowing when you’re home or what room you’re in (thanks to the motion sensors in the Nest products) sends a chill down your spine, well, you’re not alone.
Compared to that, the joke about having to sign into Google+ before being able to use your Nest products seems somewhat benign.
I prefer to think more positively: the Nest team has a fantastic design sense, and a good vision for the future of the Internet of Things. That has at least two potential upsides in the near future.
Number one, if Nest’s design department is brought onto other projects that Google is working on, there’s less of a chance that Google’s new projects will be so – let’s just say it – god-awfully nerdy looking. Even though Google finally managed to shepherd Android from a pixelly nightmare through to something people love to use, there’s no such subtlety with Google Glass: Glass is a nerd tag that can be identified as such from half a mile away. If some of the subtlety from the Nest thermostat design can be harnessed for forthcoming generations of Google Glass, the technology may actually have a chance in the wider marketplace.
The second factor is a bigger focus on the Internet of Things, where the objects around you are more connected, and controllable from a central location. While people with financial resources have been able to automate their home for some time, it’s been pretty expensive to hook everything up to a central controller. Now, with the ability to buy an Internet-connected crockpot for just over $100, we’re rapidly reaching the point where ordinary people can control the objects in their environment in a way that used to be reserved for the ultra-rich (or for Bond super-villains).
That may actually be the way forward for a company like Google, rather than active involvement with handsets. Google Now is already designed to become a central hub for your life, serving up information before you even knew you needed it. By also bolting in your gadgets and appliances, it’s a short step to Google Now turning on lights for you as you walk around the house, brewing your coffee for you when it senses you’re finally awake, and other such conveniences.
Of course, that could also be flipped into a dystopian scenario where all of your gadgets and machines gang up on you or refuse to work. But it’s best not to talk about that possibility too much at the moment…after all, it’s impossible to tell whether the toaster is listening and reporting back to HQ.