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Google is searching for hardware love

The search giant is making a big push with consumer gadgets. Now comes the hard part: getting people to buy them.

James Martin/CNET

When you want answers fast, chances are you think of Google: What's the name of Prince's third album? How tall is the Empire State Building? How long is a flight from San Francisco to New Orleans?

That seemingly infinite breadth of knowledge made Google one of the most powerful companies on the planet. Now, the internet giant is hoping that search prowess is potent enough to carry it through a new mission on less-traveled territory for the 18-year-old company: building gadgets -- and getting you to buy them.

(The answers to those questions, by the way, are "Dirty Mind," 1,454 feet and a little longer than four hours nonstop. And yes, I Googled all of those.)

Google has built that kind of smarts into its new menu of gadgets: a flagship phone called the Pixel, a smart home hub and music speaker called Google Home, a smart Wi-Fi router aptly called Google WiFi, a new Chromecast streaming device and a virtual reality headset called Daydream View. Google unveiled them all in October, and within the last few weeks, they've hit the market. The router, the last of the bunch to be released, started shipping just this week.


Google unveiled a new VR headset in October.

James Martin/CNET

But it's not like there's any shortage of phones, routers or even devices to stream Netflix on the market. And when it comes to smart home hubs, Amazon's Echo -- with its voice assistant Alexa and Alec Baldwin Super Bowl commercials -- has become the early darling.

So the big test for Google in 2017 will be to convince you to buy its gadgets because they're smarter than all those other smart devices, simply because the company has been building up data about the world -- and you personally -- for almost two decades. That is, knowing your favorite food from all your recipe searches over the years, or knowing your favorite route to work because of your Google Maps inputs.

But is that going to be enough?

Google didn't reply to a request for comment on this story.

Hardware, not software

Google is an iconic brand thanks to its search engine and the Android mobile software that now powers nine out of every 10 phones in the world. But if you're looking for, say, a router or some other new piece of hardware to bring even more tech into your life, chances are Google isn't your first choice.

The company needs to change that. Google aims to grow, and the only way it can do that is by getting you to spend even more time with its services, like maps and search. And borrowing a page from Apple's playbook, it figures the best way to keep you engaged and dazzled by what Google can do for you is to bring all its software and services together into an AI-assisted world, ready to answer your questions, turn up the heat in your house, play your favorite music, and turn off your lights with the touch of your hand or a simple voice command.

The only thing you need to do to live in that Google future is to buy into that new line of Google-branded gadgets -- ones they're hoping you'll find so irresistible, thanks to all that software savvy, that you're willing to jettison your iPhone, Galaxy, Echo and the other "smart devices" you may be experimenting with or just thinking about bringing home.


The Google Home smart home hub competes with Amazon's Echo.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

"Google's competing with everyone," said Cyril Ebersweiler, founder of Hax, a startup accelerator that helps budding hardware companies. "You have to put so much effort into branding. So when someone goes to a shelf and sees two products side by side, they choose yours."

Try, try again

This isn't the first time Google has tried to pitch gadgets. The new smartphone Pixel is named after a line of laptops and tablets the company's made in-house since 2013. They're well-regarded for their quality, but they're niche (as in, not a lot of people own them).

The company also put out some clunkers. Remember the Nexus Q or the Nexus Player? Of course you don't. They were both streaming devices that didn't gain traction with customers. Google pulled the plug on both of them.

And Google also tried to just straight up buy hardware expertise. It acquired Motorola in 2011 for $12.5 billion, only to flip it to Chinese device maker Lenovo for $3 billion in 2014 (it kept the patents, though). That same year, Google bought Nest, the maker of smart home devices cofounded by former Apple hardware czar Tony Fadell, who's known as the "godfather of the iPod." But Nest has had its share of hardships and employee discontent, and Fadell left earlier this year amid heavy media scrutiny.

So the new wave of hardware feels like it's part of a serious, home-grown, coordinated plan. In April, Google reorganized several of its disparate product lines to make sure the gadgets look and feel like they were designed by the same company. It also formed a specialized hardware group and handed the reins to Rick Osterloh, an ex-Motorola executive and industry veteran known for his hardware chops.

The idea is to create a cohesive brand identity and to turn the company's signature G logo into something you lust after for your living room or rec room.

"Their previous hardware could probably be dismissed as kind of a hobby," said Jan Dawson, principal analyst at Jackdaw Research.

Not anymore. Now it's a search for the company's future.