Why Google Must Commit To Hardware

on February 27, 2012
Reading Time: 3 minutes

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.