Why do Products like the Google Nexus Q Launch?

At Google’s I/O developer conference in June, Google boldly announced the Nexus Q, a $299 streaming music sphere.  Last week, Google stopped selling the Nexus Q and cancelled all consumer pre-orders, saying buyers would get the unit for free.  It appeared obvious to just about everyone except Google that the Nexus Q value proposition was incredibly weak.  So how does one of the most powerful companies in the world allow a product so obviously not ready get to market?  It happens for many reasons and more often than you might think.  I’d like to characterize the many reasons products like this make it this far as I experienced it through my 20 years of product management and product marketing.

The Google Nexus Q Value Proposition

While I detail out the Nexus Q value proposition here, let me provide a small sample.  For $299, consumers get a cool looking black sphere for music and video streaming that can only pull content from the Google Play cloud.  To control it, you must have an Android phone or tablet, and if your friends want to add tracks to the music list they must have an Android device. The Q also came with a high quality, built-in amp and speaker jacks.  Net-net, it was $200 or 3X more than an Apple TV or Roku device if you are looking at it as a content streamer.  If you are audiophile, you will be comparing it to a Sonos, which while comparatively priced, can also stream from multiple cloud services, and be controlled by iOS and Android devices.

The press gave it the expected response.

The Press Reaction

The press reaction was brutal.   The best way to show just how bad it was is with the headlines:

Google I/O was a smashing success.  They launched a great Nexus 7 tablet with Project Butter and Google Now, some cool social and search features, and who will ever forget the Google Glass demo?  Google didn’t need to launch the Q to have what I would characterize as one of the more perfect developer conferences.

So why and how exactly do products like the nexus Q make all the way through the ideation, planning, execution, and launch phase without someone putting the brakes on?  There are many ways and reasons this happens that I outline below, and product managers need to pay heed to all of these potential pitfalls.  I am generically speaking about products, not specifically about the Nexus Q.

Don’t Solicit Outside Opinions

Some companies don’t solicit outside opinion by design.  Outside opinions can be via market research, consultants, tech analysts, etc.  The project is so secret that they put the team members in another building with limited access and have them sign NDAs.  This is done, obviously for security, and there are hundreds of examples of this that the industry finds out about after the fact.  This week in the Apple-Samsung trial, we all heard that the iPhone development was treated like this.  This secret method obviously works well for Apple and a handful of companies, but for other companies, not so great. Some other companies don’t solicit outside input because they just don’t see value in it.  Some say it’s too time consuming or too expensive.  That’s just code for “I don’t see the value”.  They figure they are the experts, have all the answers, and any outside inputs could lead to having the project derailed.

Living in an Alternate Universe

Sometimes, companies will solicit external input on a concept or product but don’t listen to the advice or heed it.  Many times you will hear the phrase, “well that’s only one piece of input we’ll incorporate.”  This usually means the outside input won’t be used or even heeded, because, quite frankly, the company “knows” more than the outsider giving the input.  Or so they think.  These kind of folks get outside input because the rule book says they needed to get it and once they did, it becomes a filled-in check box versus valued input.  The product planner may believe the input, but just not heed the outcome.  The end result is the same as not soliciting input.

Underestimating the Downstream Impact

Many times, a product will successfully make it down the gate process only for the PM to be surprised down the line by a cost over-run or an internal team missing a delivery date.  This could very well have happened to the Nexus Q.  I can imagine the Q had a very long list of required features and nice to have features.  Judging by what launched, the “must-have” features didn’t even ship.  I can see just a few features that could have been added to make the Q the must-have party device.  What happened next was where the damage was done.  So what is a product leader’s reaction if their product is hit with a significant cost overrun or schedule slip?  In the case of the Q, the impact was most likely minimized.  Look at many Google products that get sent out as “Beta” at Google.  Most of them do.  Google News and Shopping were betas for years and cost the consumer nothing but time to use.  The difference is that the Nexus Q was $299 and it was more like Alpha stage if you gauge on feature completeness.

The Emperor Has No Clothes

When I have been privy to post-mortems of train-wreck projects, many times it comes down to a lack of leadership.  The entire team had a decent vision, knew the customer and what they wanted, solicited external input, listened to it, and knew the downstream impacts of issues that existed if they trudged forward.  But the leader in charge felt they had to meet the date at all costs or didn’t listen to the team members.  The leader made a commitment to someone, whether it be to their VP, SVP or board of directors to deliver something by a certain date and they were going to do it come “hell or high water”.   Leaders are trained to listen, be decisive and stick to their guns, sometimes at big costs.

What’s Next for the Nexus Q?

I believe the team managing the Nexus Q had a deadline to hit with Google I/O , they got in over their heads on features and just couldn’t deliver.  And no one stopped the project.  The Nexus Q name and Google brand has been damaged, but I think it’s recoverable.  To maintain the Nexus Q price, Google will need to add a ton of features.  I am envisioning the “ultimate party device” where everyone who comes to the party can play videos, music and games from their own device and the cloud.  I can also see “party mode” where every picture, video clip, and social media post  taken at the party is shown on a large HDTV. If something like that is a bridge too far, then Google will need to pull the price lever.  The BOM cost cannot be over a $100 with the built-in 25W amp, so they have a lot to work with.   Whatever Google does, they need to make some decisive moves if they hope to be successful with living room devices.

Is There No One At Google Who Knows How To Say “No”?

Google, in an email to those that pre-ordered a Nexus Q:

We also heard initial feedback from users that they want Nexus Q to do even more than it does today. In response, we have decided to postpone the consumer launch of Nexus Q while we work on making it even better.

Google amazes me and not in a good way. They are one of the largest, most powerful, most important companies on the planet, yet:

– They spend the time and money to prepare a device that has glaring deficiencies.

– They take a lot of time from Google I/O to demo the device.

– They allow customers to pre-order the device.

– They then pull the device because they discover what everyone has known from the get-go: That the Nexus Q was a flawed concept that was Dead On Arrival (DOA).

Is there no one at Google who knows how to say “no”?

Google Nexus Q: A Confused Product

Wednesday, Google kicked off their annual developers conference in San Francisco.  Dubbed Google I/O, the conference is targeted at developers in the Google ecosystem.  It is meant to woo them so that they keep developing for the ecosystem and if Google had their way, leave the Apple and Microsoft ecosystems.  Many positive things came out of I/O including the Nexus 7 tablet and a spectacular demonstration of emerging technology with Google Glass.  Technology aside, I have never seen such an awesome demonstration like this that went from blimp to rooftop to rappelling to BMX bikes, and all in about five minutes.  That will be talked about in the valley for a while and I pity the next major company who does an announcement as it will be compared to Glass.

All was not good, though at Google I/O.  Amidst all the successful rollouts of products, technologies, and advanced prototype demonstrations was one of the most confusingly-positioned products I have seen in a while.  The Google Nexus Q is a real head-scratcher as it isn’t positioned well against anything that will be looked at as a competitor.  Bad positioning never ends well, as it typically results in deep price cuts or discontinuation, and that is exactly where I see the Nexus Q headed.

The current state of living room electronics has segmented Smart TVs, set top boxes, OTT adapters, and game consoles.  Sure there are gray areas and overlaps, but that’s how consumers segment them today in their heads.  The Nexus Q and Apple TV are examples of OTT (Over the Top) Adapters that take digital content from the cloud or from local devices.  So if the Nexus Q is an OTT Adapter, how well is it positioned?

Compared to the Apple TV, the Nexus Q does less and priced at $299 is three times more expensive.  That’s not very good positioning.  Both products can take content from the cloud, but the Apple TV can play almost anything from an iOS device, including games.  The Q does have an amp so you can directly plug speakers into the device.  Is that worth the extra $200?  No it is not.

Compared to the $199 XBOX 360 S, the situation gets even worse.  Today’s 360 does nearly everything the S can plus plays thousands of the top games.  According to market data of media sales, the XBOX 360 is a formidable media hub with users buying huge amounts of movies.  Users can also play content from their mobile devices if they are “PlayTo” certified or support the latest DLNA standards.

Compared to Sonos, the price gets within range, but here is where Google lacks experience, a fully segmented line-up, cross-compatibility, a brand, and mass distribution.  Sonos is the gold standard today for distributed digital audio in the home.  Sonos supports the Android, iOS, and Amazon ecosystems, not just Android like the Q.  Sonos also offers a full line of bridges, speakers, amplifiers, and OTT adapters.  The Q offers one adapter and one set of speakers.  But the Nexus Q does have lights that glow around the ball like disco lights…..

I am not down on Google or Google I/O, I am frustrated that Google blew an incredible opportunity to have a flawless Google I/O.  The industry needs a new champion and Google had a shot a proving they were the one.  Instead, Google reinforced that nagging description of not getting the end user or buyer.  So for now, Apple keeps that title and over time as the Nexus Q reduces in price and gets discontinued, Google will get another shot next year.