Google Has Finally Realized That Hardware is Sexy. But …

2 minute read
| Editorial

Google’s latest hardware offerings suggest that the company has finally figured out something important. Almost.

This morning, I watched CNET’s very good video synopsis of Google’s October 4 hardware announcements.”Every important moment from Google’s product event in 5 minutes.” Here’s a recap of the products announced.

Google's new product line.

Image credit: Google

  1. The Google Pixel 2 (and XL) smartphones ($649 and $849 (OLED)).
  2. Google Pixel Buds (wireless headphones), featuring realtime language translation. Like Apple’s AirPods.
  3. Google Home mini ($49, like the Amazon Dot).
  4. Google Home Max ($399, like Apple’s HomePod).
  5. Google Pixelbook. ($999, 2-in-1 high performance Chromebook).
  6. Google Pixelbook Pen ($99 like the Apple Pencil).
  7. Google Clips ($249, a new kind of home camera).

I won’t go into technical details here or availability dates here. What’s more important to me is that Google, after years dabbling in hardware products is finally getting the idea that customers love cool hardware driven by great software. But there’s a wrinkle that needs exploring.

First, the hardware aspect is interesting. Software alone is hard to love. It does its job, but we no longer drool over software. Everything that can be done in apps has been done in apps.

But hardware is different. You can touch it. You can walk into a store and admire its design. While computers can manage thousands of apps, we only have space in our lives for so much hardware, and what we select has be very special. It takes up space costs real money. It has to look good, be appealing, be tactile and have great functionality.

All of Google’s new products look great.

How About the Software?

What Google doesn’t do a great job at, it seems to me, is making us appreciate the software that drives the hardware. Google, in that video above, is clearly all about showing off its deep software and AI expertise, as in realtime audio language translation, but the one product tends to follow Google’s tendency to be slightly creepy. As we saw with Google Glass.

The Google Clips is the best example of that. This business of having cameras in our homes, not under our direct control, is getting to be an uncomfortable trend, one that I explored in last Friday’s Particle Debris.

A product like this appears to me to violate the spirit of what Steve Jobs was trying to achieve when he’d introduce a new product and close with: “This is why we do what we do.” There was a deep humanity and passion for the human spirit: love, family, and respect for self and others. The result was a feeling of joy for the hardware that translates into sales.

That’s what I think Google is lacking in some of its new offerings, many of which are clearly me-too products. That’s why Apple’s HomePod is all about great music and a socially responsible Siri that honors the customer’s privacy. Google, it seems to me, hasn’t quite figured out how to reign in its penchant for its own brand of software expertise that overreaches instead of invoking deep respect and celebration.

Goggle may be on a better path now. But until it focuses on why the company builds hardware products and what its end goal is for the customer experience, as Mr. Jobs taught us, then the cool hardware won’t satisfy, let alone be revered, in the long term.

7 Comments Add a comment

  1. geoduck

    Good points, but if I may I’d like to play devil’s advocate for s bit.
    {caution old fogey rant}

    We now have a major part of the population that has been helicopter parented from day one. They were spied on throughout school. Rewarded for turning in someone that might be doing anything out of line. They are used to metal detectors everywhere they go. Bag searches and body scans are routine for everything from catching a plane to seeing a baseball game. All for a myth of perfect safety. They had images of themselves posted to the web as tiny children. They now post images of themselves, of what they do, what they eat, who they see, all sorts of private moments without concern. They have been watched and monitored their whole lives. When they learned to drive their parents used tracking boxes and phone apps to monitor exactly where they were going. When they have not been under someone’s watchful eye, they’ve gladly done the spying themselves and posted voluntarily.

    Why would we think they give a damn about privacy? They’ve never had privacy. They’ve never been trusted to do the right thing just because it was the right thing.

    Why would cameras from Big Brother Google or microphones from Sister Amazon or or Uber tracking them even when they’re not in a car, or an internet provider deciding for them what they can and can’t download, or government monitoring their web activity, or employers checking on what they do in their free hours bother them? Why would spy cameras in their house, in their bedroom, in their bathroom be at all worrisome to them? It’s the way people have been raised for the last 20 years or more.

    Privacy is the most fundamental right. It underlies EVERY ONE of the Bill of Rights. There is no freedom that means anything without privacy.

    But a major part of the population doesn’t even remember a time when privacy was respected and valued.
    {/old fogey rant}

    • pjs_boston

      Your point about privacy is well taken, but I think John’s (and Jony Ive’s) point about intention is valid. People can sense intention in design. Lovingly crafted objects have the ability to generate excitement. Me too products that exist for reasons other than the love of making a great product come across as cynical and don’t engender the same feelings in the owner.

  2. aardman

    Great. So now Google has the temerity to ask you to pay them for the privilege of turning yourself into an even more attractive product that* they can sell to advertisers.

    I do not understand why the idea of government acting like Big Brother is a totally reprehensible dystopian nightmare, but when it’s a private corporation, well it’s nothing short of a utopian wet dream.

    *’That’ not ‘whom’, ‘Whom’ would be acknowledging your personhood, something I strongly suspect Google is loathe to do.

  3. Jamie

    Great piece, and great comments. Regarding privacy being the foundation for all other rights, I completely agree, and it would behoove young people to learn: they may not understand privacy, but they sure pitch a fit when the privileges it engenders are threatened. 😉

  4. Ned

    I’m no fan of Google and the jury’s still out on Amazon for me though I do have couple of Echo Dots and a Fire Tablet, both of which I really like. The microphone can be shut off on these and leaving them on has made me ponder the science fiction I grew up with.

    A paradigm shift that needs the publics’ attention as Walt Mossberg suggested – how far do you want it to go before you’ve allowed it to go? Surely, Bones, Scotty and the gang had an always listening computer on the Enterprise. That’s the future we embraced without thinking about it – but it’s coming faster than we’d think. That’s scary but an opportunity to teach responsibility, another basis of our Bill of Rights.

    I agree with the comments above on privacy. A lot like your reputation, once it’s gone it’s hard to get it back. Or like Joni said, “Don’t it always seem to go, you don’t no what you’ve got till it’s gone.”

  5. eolake

    This is amazing. At first I thought it was a spoof.
    Based on how Steve Jobs spoke in keynote speeches, Apple executives are now speaking in a very special way in keynotes. They make small pauses all the time, often more than once per sentence, and they keep emphasising key words in each sentence, so the audience has no way of not following what they think is important
    It’s very distinct!
    Additionally, they all the time talk about their LOVE and EXCITEMENT about the products they introduce. (It may be a little exaggerated from Apple, but I don’t buy it at all from others for some reason.)
    They also have specific hand gestures, like holding out both hands out with palms up like getting ready to catch a ball.

    … And now I see these clips from a recent Google promotional event. They have absolutely copied every aspect of the Apple keynote format. It’s almost scary; like I said, at first I thought it was a spoof, a parody.
    [It fails a little because the audience is so small. It’s much less impressive when 20 people cheer than when 200 people cheer.]

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