Hugo Barra, director of Google Product Management, holds up the new Google Nexus7. | Paul Sakuma~ap
Updated: July 29, 2012 5:02PM
Google, like Microsoft, got the holy hell beaten out of them in mobile space. Both companies bandaged their wounds, spent some time in rehab, and during a weekend retreat with a trusted spiritual adviser, came to the same life-changing realization:
Steve Jobs was right: a modern consumer technology company needs to “make the whole widget.”
Google has had tremendous success with the Android OS on phones. During Wednesday’s Google I/O developer keynote, the company boasted that more than 400 million Android devices have been activated to date, at a current rate of about 12 per second. That’s even more impressive, given that they boasted only 100 million activations at last year’s conference.
So why don’t they have a significant presence in tablets? Why was the Google TV living-room device a complete flop?
It’s a long list of explanations but it clearly starts with the fact that they’ve been able to release operating systems and services and propose ideas for how they should be made into products. Well, they’re tired of shipping out top-grade (OK: reasonably good) sirloin and then watching device makers grind it up with Spam and serve it overcooked and slathered in processed cheese. They’re designing and selling their own gear.
Google announced two products during the first-day conference keynote. The Nexus Seven is a slim, lightweight 7-inch Android 4.1-based tablet with terrific specs: a modern Tegra 3 CPU, a 1280-by-800 HD display, front-facing camera, radios for WiFi, Bluetooth, and near-field communication, a compass and gyroscope (for gaming and navigation), and a battery that can play nine hours of HD video.
It’s optimized to work as intimately with Google Play content as the Kindle Fire does with Amazon’s digital content, with new viewers for books and magazines that offer what looks to be a fairly slick experience.
The most important feature, given the current tablet market: it’s just $199. You can preorder it today from play.google.com and it’ll ship in mid-July. It certainly alters the center of gravity. That’s the same price as the Fire. Kindle owns the mind space for e-books, but the device is regarded more as a color e-reader than a full-featured tablet. Do consumers want a cheap tablet, or an expensive reader?
And how will Apple respond? The Nexus Seven looks like a damned nice little piece of kit. This ought to fan the rumors, at least, of the 7-inch iPad that might arrive this fall. If the Nexus sells well, such a device is inevitable.
Google had another bespoke device to show off: the Nexus Q. It made a much weaker impression because it’s a much more vague kind of gadget. It’s a black sphere that connects to your local network and nearby mobile devices. What does it do? Well, you use your Android device to choose music and movies that you have in your Google Play cloud, and it streams through the Q out to speakers or a TV. And it’s social, meaning that anyone in the room can add content to the device’s playlist. The device itself has no storage. It only receives instructions to fetch content from the cloud.
So, no Internet connection means no joy. Coincidentally, construction on my street forced me to flee the house and head to the library to watch the rest of Google’s livestream when the crew shut off the street’s broadband. So go ahead and wonder what I think of a media device that can’t play the content that’s already right there on my home network.
Also, if the thing can stream content from non-Google services — Netflix, Spotify, HBO GO, etc. — no mention was made during the demo. And this thing costs $299.
As if Google had anticipated the massive “huh?” that descended over the crowd after the demo, they went into Part 2 of the keynote in which a wingsuited skydiver wearing Google Glass (those little glasses that capture what you’re seeing while you’re seeing it) jumped out of an airplane and landed on the roof of the convention center, streaming live video throughout.
Well, let’s forgive them the possible misfire of the Q. The Nexus Seven finally spackles in a massive hole in the tablet market: a commercial tablet that one might conceivably want to own instead of an iPad. And while Google Glass is still just a research project — albeit one that’s sophisticated enough at this point for a live, on-stage demo — it shows just what’s possible when a smart company can have great ideas and then actually express them directly to consumers, without waiting for a middleman to interpret (and maybe ruin) them.