Why Google Must Commit To Hardware

by Tim Bajarin   |   February 27th, 2012

With the Nexus One and their recent purchase of Motorola, Google has more then signaled that they will soon be in the hardware business in a big way. And the recent rumors that they are building a 120,000 square foot consumer experience testing center on their campus suggest that they will test their own hardware along with partners products in order to create and deliver devices that are truly optimized for their Android and Chrome software.

This move is of course controversial since it means that they will be in direct competition with their customers and partners who back Android and Chrome. However, I don’t think Google has any choice but to go in this direction if they have any hope of gaining ground on Apple and try to stave off an imminent threat from Microsoft via their Windows 8 cross-device Metro strategy.

One of the facts that is becoming very clear to the industry at large is that Apple’s lead in hardware, software and services is a mammoth one. They are selling over 5 million Macs per quarter. The iPhone continues to be a hot product and while Android has gained much ground in units shipped against the iPhone, Apple is taking as much as 74% of all the profit in this space. And the iPad holds well over 80% of the tablet market share and this will be the case through this year too. And many of my research colleagues predict that even in 2015, Apple will have at least 60% of the tablet market.

But the key to Apple’s success is no secret. They are where they are because they own the hardware, software and services and combined they give Apple a significant advantage over their competitors. And while that too is no secret, what is not understood well by the outside world is that they architect their devices around their services. The best example of this is with the iPod. While the hardware itself is the profit center for Apple, it was the music service that was the critical component that made the iPod take off. From a hardware perspective, they architected it around the music service, which means they designed the iPod software, user interface and hardware dials so that they were optimized to deliver a great portable music experience.

The same goes for the iPhone and the iPad. It is the services that drive the final UI and hardware designs and since Apple controls the entire eco-system, they can be assured that they deliver to their customers a unified and easy to use experience with their products.

Now consider the plight of the middleware software vendors like Google and Microsoft. What they bring to the party is a critical component of any final product via the OS. But both companies architect from the inside out, or only at the software level and then hand this off to their vendor partners who must now design their hardware around the software and hope the design can be optimized for the OS they have been handed. And from Google and Microsoft’s standpoint, they can only influence and hope so much that their hardware vendors will get it right.

Historically speaking, Microsoft has done the best job of creating strict technical guidelines that hardware vendors can follow, but Google’s approach to Android design is pretty much a moving target. Vendors have told me of all kinds of problems they have had getting strict hardware guidelines from Google for building Android devices.

Microsoft’s model worked for PC’s. But I don’t think this model will continue to work with this new world of mobile devices. What seems to be happening now is that in both the Windows and Android camps, controlling how the hardware vendors use these operating systems is much more difficult as hardware vendors strive to try and differentiate themselves in the market place. In many cases that mean’s hardware and software UI tweaks that go beyond what these companies give them in the way of an OS which then potentially delivers various forms of fragmentation.

At some point, not controlling the entire hardware, software and services delivers diminishing returns to both of them and sooner or later they will find that the old PC model of creating an OS and giving it to vendors to propagate will not work. In fact, I am seeing that understanding starting to become clear to both Google and Microsoft as they stare up at Apple running away with all of the profits. Apple’s model works. Using the old PC model will not work in this new world of mobile devices.

This is why we are seeing so much hardware activity at Google and I expect to see similar branded hardware strategies evolve at Microsoft very soon. While they can hope that their partners can utilize their software to create great hardware and services, at some point they have to realize that putting their trust in their vendor partners to deliver their vision is a crapshoot.

Indeed, they may only have a real chance to catch Apple if they take control of the hardware, software and services and the sooner they realize this, the sooner they can control their individual destiny’s.

Tim Bajarin

Tim Bajarin is the President of Creative Strategies, Inc. He is recognized as one of the leading industry consultants, analysts and futurists covering the field of personal computers and consumer technology. Mr. Bajarin has been with Creative Strategies since 1981 and has served as a consultant to most of the leading hardware and software vendors in the industry including IBM, Apple, Xerox, Compaq, Dell, AT&T, Microsoft, Polaroid, Lotus, Epson, Toshiba and numerous others.
  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_ROSNCEUH6GSBXAWCKQZK2XQAFY Wikileaks is Democracy

    Hi Tim,
    I would like to further refine your thesis which gives reason to Apple’s success in implementation, that it designs the whole user experience itself, in-house: The part of Apple that is able to create the software is set up to negotiate with the part of Apple that creates the hardware in order for both to meet the requirements of the vision guy/gal. During this process, if one of the three sees a problem, he/she is able to go across the hall or over to the next building, instead of visiting some other vendor who may be less than trusted, to negotiate a best possible solution for the successful implementation of the product. By this method, time is saved, trust between the entities is maintained, and the vision guy/gal is right there to give the OK or to demand changes based on evolving circumstances.

    Thanks for another insightful and well-described article. *S*

  • Rich

    Tim, do you think Nokia will be successful with Windows Phone?

    • benbajarin

      Hey Rich, we sure hope so but a lot does depend on MSFT as well. The saga continues….