Is Google a hardware company now?
SAN FRANCISCO: It was an event that included sky divers, stunt bikers and people rappelling down the side of a building. Then came another spectacle: watching Google, the Web search giant, reimagine itself as a hardware maker.
On Wednesday at Google I/O, the company’s annual conference for developers, Google unveiled a new 7-inch tablet computer, called Nexus 7, and a sphere-shaped device for streaming music and video that it is calling Nexus Q.
Both debuts paled in comparison to the company’s amped-up demonstration of Project Glass, a device that puts a camera and a tiny video screen into a kind of eyeglass frame. This involved Sergey Brin, Google’s co-founder, jumping on stage wearing the device and engaging in a live video chat on Google’s social network with a couple of wing-suited sky divers as they jumped out of a plane. They were followed by stunt bikers and rappellers who dropped down the face of the Moscone West convention center, all the while sharing what they were seeing through experimental versions of the glasses.
Brin said Google would make a $1,500 prototype of the glasses – which it calls the Google Glass Explorer Edition – available to developers from the United States who attended the conference. He said the glasses were slated to ship early next year.
Google’s focus on hardware is a strategic shift for the company, which makes the vast majority of its revenue from advertising. Google is likely to sell the Nexus 7 and Nexus Q at cost, or even at a loss, but hopes to make up for those losses – and then some – with additional revenue from purchases made on Google Play, its app and content store; additional traffic to its YouTube video site; and the advertising it reaps from all of its Internet products.
By selling Google-branded devices, the company also aims to protect its core search business as competitors hover. Facebook is deepening its partnership with Microsoft’s Bing search engine and Microsoft just announced plans for its own branded tablet. Apple is moving to cut Google out of its mobile and desktop operating systems with its own cloud, search and mapping services.
“Google is a hardware company now,” said Colin Gillis, an Internet analyst with BGC Partners. “Hardware is becoming the doorway to products and services. If you’re going to use the Internet, you are going to have to use a device. Whoever makes that device controls what services and products are offered to you, and those nickels and dimes add up over time.”
Google’s Nexus 7 tablet, which will be manufactured by Asus, the Taiwanese hardware maker, features a lightweight design, 7-inch screen and high-definition display. Google priced its tablet at $199, which puts it in direct competition with Amazon’s Kindle Fire. The cheapest version of Apple’s latest iPad sells for $500.
The Nexus 7 will feature Google’s new version of its Android mobile operating system, called Jelly Bean, which was made available to developers Wednesday and will come to some Android devices next month.
Joe Britt, an engineering director at Google, said the Android updates include a simpler and more accurate on-screen keyboard and a smarter auto-correct feature. The new software will also transcribe speech even when the device is not online.
Google showed off a new voice search feature too, aimed at competing with Apple’s Siri virtual assistant. In a demonstration, a Google employee asked an Android phone to “show me pictures of pygmy marmosets,” which returned images of the very peculiar dwarf monkey.
Google said it now activates 1 million Android devices each day, or 12 devices every second.
The company’s Nexus Q streaming music and video device will sell for $299. Google is betting that it can differentiate the Q from competitive products, like the Apple TV, by making it more social. The Q allows any user with an Android phone or tablet – not just the owner – to wirelessly send content to speakers or a television, all over the air.
Ultimately, Google plans to make the Q a portal that will link to other Internet-connected devices in the home, such as smart refrigerators, picture frames and light bulbs.
But Google Glass seemed to garner the most excitement from developers at the event. When Brin said Google would begin taking orders for the devices, he drew loud cheers.
Isabelle Olsson, who is leading the design effort for Google Glass, said the idea behind the project was to try and get “technology to get out of the way.” She added: “We created Glass so you can interact with the virtual world without obstructing the real world.”
Google seems to be realizing that it needs real-world products to connect with its many virtual-world services.