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Will Google take to the streets with its own retail stores?

Google is establishing some "zones" in Best Buy and a few other outlets, buy it may end up being compelled to follow Apple and Microsoft with a chain of retail stores worldwide.

Google comes from the cloud, but will it take to the streets to build its brand?
Composite image: James Martin/CNET

Apple and Microsoft have taken their decades-long battle into the streets, with branded retail stores to show off their wares and cultivate loyal customers. Apple has more than 300 retail stores worldwide, which rang up $16 billion in sales in 2011, and Microsoft plans to have 44 stores opened by mid-year 2013.

Google is taking on both Apple and Microsoft to become the dominant platform for everything digital in the next decade. Can Google afford to stay off the street with its own glassy superstores? The Google Store exists, but it's more like a Disney store with Google logoed T-shirts, pens and hats.

The company has established Chrome Zone mini pop-up stores, featuring Chromebooks, in London and other locations, such as Ace Hotels and on Virgin America flights. Now Google is expanding Chrome Zones into 100 Best Buy stores in the U.S., and additional Dixon's stores in the U.K. Perhaps Google's new tablet, the Android-based Nexus 7, will make an appearance, and Chrome Zones will become Google Zones.

But in light of Apple's retail success and Microsoft's major retail push, Google could be compelled to make a large- scale, brick-and-mortar investment. In response to a query about such a move, a Google spokesperson told CNET that the company does not speculate on the future.

Google Chrome Zone section of PC World on London's Tottenham Court Road. CNET Crave U.K.

While Google largely follows the Microsoft partner model rather than the closed-loop Apple model of making its own hardware, it has plenty of merchandise to bring into its own retail environment. 

Like Microsoft, Google has platforms (Android and Chrome), branded hardware (such as Nexus 7 and Chromebook), an entertainment hub (Google Play and Google TV), a branded suite of productivity apps (Google Apps), hundreds of thousands of third-party apps and a host of partners producing laptops, ultrabooks, tablets and phones. In addition, Google spent $12.9 billion to acquire Motorola Mobility, adding smartphones such as the Droid and tablets into its product portfolio.

More than a product showcase, retail storefronts would give Google fans the cathedral in which to express their adoration for or frustration with the brand in the physical world of face-to-face interaction with products and people. As Apple has proven, humans with a passion for technology and a brand don't live solely in the cloud. Stores provide a kind of connective tissue between a brand and its consumers, through browsing, events, tutorials, and genius bars.

Google might enjoy having thousands of fans lined up to plunk their money down on Google products, as Apple fans were ready to do for the iPad at the company's 5th Avenue store. Dan Farber/CBS

According to BrandZ, Google is the third most valuable global brand (behind Apple and IBM), and was rated by Fortune the second most admired company (behind Apple). As a major global brand with more than a billion "customers," and nearly $50 billion in cash and investments, Google has the ability to pay the rent and bring pulse-bearing traffic inside its stores.

"It is all about future strategy. Apple knew if people fell in love with the hardware, they would embrace the software ecosystem. Microsoft has got by on software mostly, so no need for a store until it realized that hardware was getting more important," said Chris Matyszczyk, formerly an executive creative director in the Publicis Groupe and the creator of CNET's Technically Incorrect blog. "Google has shown over the last couple of years that it is desperate to have an emotional impact with real human beings. It is now one of the larger advertisers. It spent $213 million on TV ads in 2011. It is coming out to the consumer all the time. A Google store would be perfectly logical. And Googlies are, of course, perfectly logical."