Google: No app? No problem for Web-connected devices

The search giant's "Physical Web" project aims to tie together Internet-connected devices using URLs instead of mobile apps.

Richard Nieva Former senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Richard Nieva
2 min read

The "Physical Web" project will let Web-connected objects beam URLs to phones and tablets so people can interact with them. Google

When it comes to Internet-connected devices, too often there's an app for that. But Google has a plan that would let people interacted with "smart" things -- everything from cars to vending machines to toys -- without having to download a specific app.

The search giant this week revealed a project called "Physical Web," which aims to create a common standard that ties together disparate Web-enabled devices by using URLs instead of mobile apps.

Here's how it would work: Each device -- Google uses bus stops and vending machines as an example -- is assigned its own URL. That URL is then beamed out to everything around it and will show up on a nearby phone or tablet. People can then interact with the objects via their mobile device using the open Web, instead of needing to download one app for bus stops and a separate app for vending machines.

"The number of smart devices is going to explode, and the assumption that each new device will require it's own application just isn't realistic," Google wrote in a blog post. "We need a system that lets anyone interact with any device at any time."

Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Several of the world's largest tech companies are making bets on the nascent "Internet of Things," referring to Web-infused devices. Google in January announced the acquisition of Nest, the high-profile maker of smart-home gadgets like the Nest Learning Thermostat and Nest Protect smoke detector, for $3.2 billion. Samsung in August said it was buying SmartThings, an open platform for smart home devices. Apple also entered the fray when it introduced HomeKit for its iOS 8 mobile operating system, which lets people control various devices from an iPhone or iPad.

Using the Physical Web approach, Google said new "tiny use cases" become possible, like a bus stop telling you when the next bus is coming or a rental car beaming you a sign-up sheet so you can drive away immediately.

Like Google's Android mobile operating system, the Physical Web is an open-source project -- with the hope that other device makers will adopt the standard. The company also notes the goal is not to get rid of specific apps for smart devices -- Nest, for example, has an app for operating its devices -- but to "enabling interaction when native apps just aren't practical," most commonly in public places.

Eventually, the goal is for the standard to be built into operating systems like Android or Apple's iOS, wrote Scott Jenson, a Google interaction and user experience designer. But for now, the Physical Web project has an Android app and an iOS app on the way.