More hardware, Google? I guess?

JULY 7TH, 2016 — POST 185

For a company who owns home of video online, the biggest segment of the online advertising market, and was (probably) the first to have its name “verbified” (google it), Google is apparently going to have another go at consumer hardware. As The Verge reports, Google is developing its own smartwatch models to compete alongside the Apple Watch, the Moto 360, and whatever-the-fuck Samsung, Huawei, and LG are putting out this year. The smartwatches — codenamed Angelfish and Swordfish — will undoubtedly serve as homes for Google’s Android Wear operating system, one that many other hardware manufacturers adopt. If we do hear anything about these this year, the pair will join Google Home and presumably some updated Nexus phones as the company’s 2016 hardware offering.

The first device that turned me into a tech head and early adopter overnight was the Google-commissioned Nexus 7 in 2012, built by Asus. Later that same year, the paradigmatic 7" tablet was joined by an update to the Nexus smartphone in the Nexus 4, this time built by LG. With both these two products in my hands, and in the hands of a lot of tech press — and with Jelly Bean, a watershed release for Android with the much talked about ‘Project Butter’, just released — there was a general buzz around the search giant. Through what now seems like a chorus of whispers spoken behind hands, the industry was rattling with excitement. Could Google be about to take down Apple?. I know, this sounds ridiculous with hindsight. But if the company would made the most popular mobile operating system took a look at the vertical integration — “We make the hardware, we make the software” — of Apple, we might actually have a fair game: two flagship devices from two warring companies.

But you only have to look at the person sitting next to you on the bus and the phone they’re using to know this isn’t how it played. As it turns out, manufacturing a simply inordinate number of devices and then getting them to customers in a timely fashion is pretty fucking hard. And also, when you’re operating system underpins the handsets of other manufacturers like Samsung and HTC, you might start to piss people off if you plan to make your own phone. Which is what happened.

So since this so-close-yet-so-far moment with the original Nexus 7 and the Nexus 4, Google’s hardware, with the exception of the perfect-first-time Chromecast, has been half-baked, poorly conceived, and consequently not very attractive. They make a laptop that runs an OS you can get on sub-$300 hardware at a price that approaches Apple’s fully-fledged MacBooks. They make a tablet — oh boy — that runs Android’s latest version, still crippled to the point of pointless by the lack of quality tablet apps for Android. (It’s worth pointing out that the 2012 Nexus 7 was supposed to be the device to fix this. It didn’t.)

So now, the smartwatch space will be further bloated by Google’s own hardware. I can hear the announcement keynote already. “For developers to see what Android Wear is capable of, and for our hardware partners to see what’s possible”. Basically, “Go and make something like this so we don’t have to (it’s really hard) and then you guys get to work to make it good”. As easy as it is to level criticism at the Tizen-running Samsung smartwatches — of which there are seemingly as many models as Samsung has employees — the Korean company is providing what you want from a smartwatch: intimacy with your smartphone. This makes the value proposition somewhat natural, similar to the Apple Watch. Okay, you might not know exactly why you need it, but it’s part of the family, like the matching throw pillow to your bed spread. In the most fundamental aesthetic sense, it makes sense. Google’s bet is that the Android Wear platform itself is attractive, so attractive that you’ll buy the purest instantiation of it to go with whatever handset you have.

So Google has a fundamental problem of scale: Android Wear won’t be attractive until developers work it out, and developers won’t touch it until there’s a sufficient install-base. And even install-base doesn’t seem to be enough. Android’s app ecosystem is frankly unacceptable in 2016. We’re beyond the top 10 apps being the only table stakes. We want professional apps. We want cool, weird, small apps. And app developers want (well, need) people to pay for them. Between Aptoide, the app piracy app, and the bet on app scaling across screen sizes (a bet Apple didn’t make, rather betting on dedicated experiences for iPhone and iPad), seems to continually have Android’s ankles tied together. The iPhone and iOS doesn’t even have to sprint. It can walk, dawdle, enjoy the sites, and still get home first.

Being so dependant on iOS, and to a lesser extent macOS, scares me. Between Ulysses, Highland, Weekend Read, OmniOutliner, and even Apple’s Pages — as well as the tonnes of utilities like Alfred, BetterTouchTool, and Moom — I’m tied into a platform that, at times and with certain rumours, I’m not sure is always heading in the right directions. But there just isn’t a compelling alternative. And Google’s own forays into hardware have been so underwhelming to render them inconsequential even in the Android landscape, let alone more broadly. Chromecast was and will continue to be a great product, and Google Home has the deck stacked in its favour, but as far as the catalog of devices we keep on and around our bodies, I’m sceptical Google can do anything more than a tepid justification of their own operating systems in underwhelming hardware.

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