Weekly Update

Google draws the wrong lesson from Apple

Everyone is Apple these days. To be anybody in the connected consumer space, it seems, you have to make your own hardware, just as Apple does.

Amazon went there, with the Kindle Fire. Microsoft followed, with the Surface tablet. Now, Google has joined the party with this week’s unveiling of the new Nexus 7 tablet and the Nexus Q home entertainment streaming device, the latter designed and built entirely by Google, the former designed by Google and built by Asus.

Google also seems to have taken to heart Apple’s emphasis on design. The Nexus Q is a polished black orb about the size of a small bowling ball with virtually no external controls. Positioned carefully to hide the cables used to attach it to your home entertainment system and it could almost be a piece of pop art — alluring, enigmatic, begging to be touched. And we all know how much mileage Apple has gotten out of designing devices you want to touch. The Nexus 7, too, is sleek and solid, designed to be cradled.

Yet Google may have missed the more important lesson of Apple’s success. For all the design elegance of Apple’s devices, the heart of its strategy has always been to extend its core franchise into new markets and onto new form factors. With the Nexus 7 and Nexus Q, Google seems to be aping other brands’ core franchises rather than advancing its own.

The key selling point of Mac desktops and the Mac OS was always that the system — the hardware and software together –“just works.” Buy a Mac, it won’t crash, you won’t get weird error messages, the software won’t freeze. It just works. The MacBook brought the same it-just-works ethic to the laptop.

At the time Apple introduced the iPhone, the smartphone market was a muddle, a jumble of form factors, competing operating systems, carrier policies and other variables. The iPhone just worked: one model, elegantly designed, running Apple’s purpose-built software and a hand-picked carrier. Companies had tried tablets before but Apple made the iPad work.

One reason I suspect Apple has treated Apple TV as no more than a hobby is that the TV ecosystem has so many moving parts — pay-TV operators, networks, DVRs, over-the-top services — controlled by so many different interests, that even Apple has not figured out a way to deliver on “it just works” for the TV, so it hasn’t tried.

Microsoft, whose design sense has never been confused with Apple’s, nonetheless managed to engineer its own core franchise of OS and enterprise-friendly productivity into the Surface. The Microsoft-designed Surface, particularly the high-end Intel version, appears to be the first tablet that effectively integrates laptop-like functionality and productivity software into the tablet form factor.

Amazon’s Kindle Fire is essentially an e-commerce storefront that fits in your purse.

The Nexus 7, however, seems more like a Kindle Fire wannabe than anything particularly Googly. Though it runs the latest version of Android, Google’s hugely successful mobile OS, it seems more like an extension of Google Play, its revamped e-commerce platform, now newly enhanced with expanded offerings of movie, music and magazine content — much as the Kindle Fire is an extension of the Amazon store.

The Nexus Q, while cool-looking, seems even less Googly. It’s even less functional than the Nexus 7, and at $300 it’s mostly an expensive conversation piece.

Android is certainly a core business for Google, and there’s nothing wrong Google with trying to extend the state-of-the-art of Android hardware. Apart from the Kindle Fire, Android tablets to date have not made up much ground against the iPad and Google needs Android tablets to succeed. But functionally, neither the Nexus 7 nor Nexus Q solve any problem that others haven’t already solved, or that Google is uniquely capable of solving.

Ironically, there is one realm of the connected consumer space for which Google should be uniquely positioned, but where it’s leaving the hardware design and functionality to others: Google TV.

While the many moving parts of the TV content ecosystem may be too much for Apple to wrangle, finding your way through a confusing jumble of information was precisely the problem Google was invented to solve: To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.

To be sure, the first version of Google TV was a spectacular flop, which may have left Google gun shy about trying again. But organizing the world’s pay-TV, broadcast, on-demand and over-the-top video and making it useful is a project few others are likely to succeed at and would seem to offer much more upside for Google if it got it right than trying to play on someone else’s turf.

As Om Malik spelled out this week in a widely noted post on GigaOM, Google seems to have settled into trench warfare on many fronts rather than striking out on its own. While it may have learned some of the secrets of hardware design, that’s not really its game.



Question of the week

Will the Nexus 7 revive the fortunes of Android tablets.