Bring On The Google Hardware Labs

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In their statement regarding the Motorola Mobility acquisition, Google said that they would “run Motorola Mobility as a separate business.” I understand that to mean that they won’t simply be devouring them, firing redundant personnel, and Borging all Moto functionality into the Google name and brand. On the other hand, they’re not just going to let it ride and skim the profits (and patents).

Their business-level plans are still a matter for discussion, but what I’m really excited about is something else entirely: Google’s new playground for hardware.

The capacity for the creation of real objects within Motorola is huge. Google produces almost no real objects at all. Motorola designs and produces things meant to be touched and put in pockets. Google designs and produces things that are untouchable, unpocketable. From some perspectives, it’s a terrible match, like Archie and Veronica. But something Google has, which I doubt they have in Motorola, and almost certainly lack in Microsoft and Apple, is upward idea mobility. Google Hardware Labs, anyone?

Consider Google’s “free time” policy, in which employees spend a significant portion of their workday tinkering or collaborating on independent projects. There’s been some disagreement about how productive or expensive this program may be, but I definitely think it’s a strength. It may not create a lot of million-user products, but it has created a great number of viable and interesting niche services. I think it’s a perfect match for bored hardware engineers.

I wrote a while back about how Microsoft needs to turn itself upside-down. Google’s not the utopia some people may think it is, but it approaches this ideal more than the competition. I’m always stumbling across microscopic Google projects to improve physics research, or solar cells, or image compression. Things that won’t serve up millions of ad impressions, but act as a sort of ambassador between Google and non-consumer communities like the medical establishment, circuit benders, and various random industries. It speaks to a certain indulgence within the company, and an eye for quality that picks out worthwhile projects for elevation.

Microsoft has smart people, but their vast and territorial network of middle managers play “Mother May I” with pet projects, stifling growth. It’s a miracle that something like the Kinect ever floated to the top, though both Windows Phone 7 and Windows 8 seem to indicate a more open, focused company. Apple probably has plenty of skunk works engineers, and a whole research division. But compared with Microsoft’s and Google’s, theirs are almost completely hidden from prying eyes. Microsoft Research engineers are collaborating with universities and putting together fascinating demos for SIGGRAPH, while the fruits of Apple’s research are only revealed in patents and final products. Both approaches have their merits — I just wanted to demonstrate two types. Motorola is of the Apple school, but less creative, and Google is of the Microsoft school, but less varied.

If Motorola engineers are given a little room to breathe (think: fewer feature-phone PCB designs), they might create some very interesting work. It’s not a guarantee — just like Googlers aren’t guaranteed to create something worthwhile in their 20% time. But Google may combine a clear eye for potential (even — perhaps especially — niche potential) and a willingness to take a risk going public to fast-track some projects and produce some really interesting devices.

Google likes hardware. They just never get a chance to confess it. The closest we see is when they cherry-pick designs for their G-series phones, or produce something like the Cr-48, soaking in understatement and Google’s function-first form. And the Open Accessory Toolkit is like a valentine to hardware hackers.

They could have bought a design studio or two, sure. They probably have a few already. But with Motorola acting as Department of Rapid Prototyping, Google has a free hand to try all kinds of things. Not that we should expect Google refrigerators or anything. But imagine things like the Courier being produced instead of buried, just because it was a cool idea. Can’t you picture Google just shelling out for a limited run of these things, to see what people do with them, to create something cool, to be able to say they did it?

I picture something along the lines of a Google Hardware Labs, open to some extent (like Chromium) and with major “releases” getting small-run manufacture. It’s probably pie in the sky, but I can dream, can’t I? And is it really so ridiculous to think that Google might occasionally throw a mil or two at a promising hardware project, the way they’ve done with software projects? Use your imagination. Why not:

  • a dedicated Google Maps and Navigation device specifically for cars
  • a Courier-like tablet for exploring dual-screen functionality
  • a slate device focused on handwriting, sketching, and manual collaboration
  • an Android-powered audio processor box with apps, physical dials, and tons of i/o
  • a Google camera all about sharing and geolocation

You think that Google doesn’t have guys coming up with this kind of stuff all the time? They’ve probably got a backlog a hundred deep of random devices and interesting hardware spaces they want to explore. Google loves to tinker. And they love to put stuff out that isn’t even close to a finished product. It’s not always a positive, but it demonstrates that, unlike Apple and Motorola, they’re willing to release something to the wild just to see how it runs.

Now, the recent shutdown of Google Labs (putting “more wood behind fewer arrows“) might shake this dream of mine. But my thinking is that Labs occupied a sort of awkward position, internal projects too buggy or specific to be implemented, but not big enough to be features highlighted in a blog post or in-app update. Clearly they’re cutting down on the the levels of granularity projects can occupy — but it doesn’t mean they’re eliminating experimentation, and at any rate a hardware project is big enough to escape that particular crackdown.

With the taste they seem to have in hardware design (and, occasionally, interface design) and the interest they demonstrate in technological dilettantism, I think the purchase of a proven hardware vector is an unabashed good thing, though it’s far from the only or primary reason Google has done so. Whether their newly acquired engineers and designers are producing stuff of their own volition, or carrying out the designs of Google’s fancy, the result will be new toys. And maybe even something useful.