Google’s Wonderful Viral Strategy

Is hardware a Google priority or just another means to an end? Does Google see itself competing with Apple and others in the realm of hardware or are Android and Chrome OS based devices just another alternative that allow users to enjoy Google’s internet services?

My confusion comes from TechCrunch reporting that Google Android chief Andy Rubin yesterday shot down rumors of the company’s plans for physical retail stores.

Rubin said that consumers “don’t have to go in the store and feel [products] anymore,” according to ATD. That’s a pretty marked contrast to what a lot of people have been saying about why Google might want to get into the brick-and-mortar biz. Just last week, MG suggested that “average consumers are never going to buy [Google’s] projects online without having tried them first,” in fact. Apple has had success providing experience-based shopping environments, after all, which helped greatly in evangelizing and popularizing the concept of the iPad.

Maybe this is a data driven statement that just happens to conflict with my own viewpoint, but I was excited about Google retail so I could test out ChromeOS, Nexus devices, and Glass in person. I finally saw the Nexus 7 in an OfficeMax a few months after its launch and really appreciated the look and feel in a way that I couldn’t from ads and Google Play. I specifically went into GameStop on several occasions just to see one but they only had boxed units for sale - no display units (unlike every other hardware platform they sell). Same with Best Buy - no luck. I similarly tried to get on a Chromebook when Zagat showed up with several at a recent neighborhood festival, but neighbors occupied each of the devices.

As Google puts more and more emphasis into flagship hardware (Pixel, Nexus, Glass), I’d like to try them first before I consider buying - especially for a younger, less mature ecosystem and operating system than MacOS and Windows. I took several trips into Best Buy before I ever bought my first iPod. I did the same with Apple stores and AT&T stores before I bought my first iPhone. Same story for my first Mac and iPad. It wasn’t until the iPad mini that I was willing to take a leap of faith to buy something sight unseen on the release date. By then, I could reasonably expect a quality experience worth my money (and I was right). As these devices become more instrumental to our lives, I’m not willing to take a leap of faith without testing out ecosystem, experience, feel, etc. Personally, I hope Rubin’s statement is a smoke screen for more news at I/O.

The other option could be that Google is taking a different strategy that actually de-emphasizes the role of hardware, since that’s not really a profit center for the company. While they initially held out on providing a Google Maps solution for iOS with turn-by-turn directions, they eventually caved after Apple deployed their own (problematic) application. Since then, I feel like Google - recognizing their need and ability to have people use their services regardless of platform - began a viral approach to other major operating systems. 

Currently, I have many of my stock iOS apps in a folder titled “Apple,” which I rarely ever open. Instead, I rely on Googles increasingly beautiful and functional apps to provide the web services on which I rely. Often, updates to their iOS apps come as frequently or in tandem with updates to their own Android versions. Similarly, I use Chrome on my MBA and hope indications that Chrome will soon deploy both Google Now-like notifications and MacOS app launchers will come true. At that point, I’ll essentially be running large portions of Android on my iPhone and ChromeOS on my MBA - infected by the usefulness of Google. The Verge review of Google Glass stated that the device will use data connections from Android OR iOS devices; a strategy I feel won’t be replicated if and when Apple begins selling their iWatch or other wearable computing devices.

Often we think of Google and Apple as competitors but recent business decisions indicate users, while presented the option to live in one exclusive ecosystem or the other, can enjoy the benefits of each as compliments by using Apple or Windows hardware and operating system augmented by Google applications and services. For me, I’m perfectly happy with that path, but I’d like to at least be able to test out the competition in a physical store.

Driverless Cars and Jevon’s Paradox

When I think about future technologies that really excite me, driverless cars are at the top of the list. In an urban setting, the confluence of automation, collaborative consumption, mobile internet devices, and fleet electrification indicate a future where I wouldn’t need to own my own car, but instead could order a driverless taxi to deliver me to a destination without ever having to worry about parking. Without parking issues, I would not only have more time on my hands for other productive uses but I wouldn’t burn substantial energy trying to find a space nor would the city and its inhabitants need to dedicate so much public space, resources, and infrastructure that could otherwise be used for more productive purposes. 

Despite Google’s engineering optimism that driverless cars are only a few years away, public sentiment and bureaucracy may not be as fast to embrace rapid technical advances:

Bloomberg: Self-Driving Cars More Jetsons Than Reality for Google Designers

NHTSA enforces vehicle safety standards that govern the minimum performance everything from the design of windshield wipers to internal trunk releases. Some of the standards date to the agency’s creation in the 1970s.
The agency would need to create standards for electronics of a self-driving car and figure out how to test them, said Dan Smith, associate administrator for vehicle safety.
“It gets to be a massive challenge to figure out how will the government come up with a performance standard that is objective and testable for so many different scenarios where failure could possibly occur,” Smith said at the SAE panel. “Part of that has to do with if we should be looking at the underlying electronics.”
The National Academy of Sciences, in a report a year ago, said NHTSA must “become more familiar with and engaged in” setting automotive-electronics standards in existing cars, without mentioning the potential of self-driving technology.

Another challenge is Jevon’s Paradox, which - according to Wikipedia - is “the proposition that technological progress that increases the efficiency with which a resource is used tends to increase (rather than decrease) the rate of consumption of that resource.” The idea being that if a technology is created that enhances energy efficiency by a factor of two, rather than cut consumption to accomplish the same amount of output for half as much energy, energy consumption would remain more or less constant and output would instead double.

So as we improve time-efficiency of car users who no longer have to be ‘present’ at the wheel of their car, do we have less need for cars or do we instead amplify problems associated with suburban sprawl? A video posted by Atlantic Cities last year depicts a world in which autonomous cars could minimize the need for any kind of traffic regulation - but to me the video reflects a world in which 12-lane highways and massive intersections could be more palatable because resistance to traffic would have been completely addressed. Furthermore, your car could become an entertainment or productivity hub that made relaxing in your car preferable to any other kind of commute (walking, biking, transit).