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10 May 2019

Google lays out Home vision, finally aligns Google Nest brand

Google has finally caved, admitting that Nest has a strong brand that it should probably do something about fully utilizing. To this end, Google has now launched Google Nest, the new name for what was Google Home before Nest was merged into it. Unveiled at its I/O conference, Google showed off the first Google Nest Device, the Hub Max, which is a home hub with a screen and now a front-facing camera.

The news comes as Amazon announces that there are now 60,000 Alexa-compatible devices, from 7,400 unique brands, available on the market – up from 20,000 devices and 3,500 brands just eight months ago. Samsung might also finally launch its Galaxy Home, but we don’t hold much hope for that platform, given the way Samsung has handled Bixby and SmartThings. Apple might also do something radical with HomeKit, but that outcome looks dimmer by the day.

So then, Google and Amazon continue to shape up to be the two main players in the smart home space, to be courted by CSPs looking to increase the stickiness of their offerings via smart home partnerships, as well as by brands looking to improve the attractiveness of their products as part of these collaborative ecosystems.

However, both platforms have major problems in terms of their messaging and their parent’s positioning. For Google, the rebrand doesn’t do anything to escape the fact that its core business is selling advertising, and that these smart home devices, however anonymized, are a way for it to better push Google service users more accurate adverts.

For Amazon, it wants to sell more products through its gigantic retail channel, but it also shows a desire to sell more of a consumer’s lifestyle than just things. To this end, a Prime subscription now includes media and cloud storage, as well as the all-important free shipping. An expansion in its grocery segments, off the back of Whole Foods, would then mean Amazon can grab the weekly household food bill from other retailers, and in time, we fully expect Prime to be expanded to these ends.

In time, Google would like to have far more reach into its users’ lives, so that it can offer a better ‘Google experience’ to them. In exchange for this service, Google gets to promote heavily personalized advertising, which it should be able to charge companies much more for. There is of course an outside chance that Google decides to sack it all in and become a proper hardware business, but in the meantime, having more smart home devices is the first step towards properly ensnaring users inside a cozy experience that Google can monetize.

So then, at the Google I/O show, Google was showing off a unified vision of its smart home offering, where Google Nest is a brand just like Google Pixel. The new $230 Google Nest Hub Max is going to be available in the summer, with new smart speakers now going to carry the Google Nest brand. The Hub Max is a rival to Amazon, but also to Facebook – a wildcard that has been promoting its Portal device quite heavily, but seems generally unlikely to displace Google or Amazon’s share here.

But a larger part of the I/O pageantry was the improvements made to the Google Assistant, the voice platform that is going to power much of a consumer’s interactions with a smart home. The Assistant is key to the overall experience, and so it has to be sticky, trapping consumers sufficiently so that next time they flirt with Siri or Alexa, they are revulsed by their comparative simplicity or character flaws.

As such, Assistant has to be industry-leading in its capabilities, and not just well connected to devices. This is the ‘ambient computing’ that Google’s VP Product Rishi Chandra has talked about – the third big shift in computing, following the shifts to the web, and then to mobile.

Chandra’s vision of ambient computing concerns creating a unified and cohesive consumer platform, which has required a rethink of product design – to ensure that a new device acts as part of this whole, rather than as an island. The three main challenges here are designing for the system, personal identification within the home for personalized experiences, and third, do a better job of communicating its principles around privacy.

That third point is going to be most difficult, especially as Google goes about converting pure Nest environments to Google ones. Of course, this is a process that should have started when the company was first bought, for $3.2bn in 2014, and to some extent, if you are outraged that you only now have to migrate from a Nest backend to a Google one, you don’t have much of a leg to stand on.

But that doesn’t change the fact that any home with a Nest thermostat or a Dropcam or Nest camera is now a Google home. There will be considerable revulsion in some homes that the largest advertising firm in the world has a window into their world, despite Google’s promises that it shan’t be tapping in to that feed. Headlines that suggest that Amazon or Google have overstepped the bounds of privacy are always quick to go viral, with Amazon’s recent humans-listening-to-Alexa-queries scandal flared up, but there will be some comfort in the fact that these outrages are so short-lived and the majority of consumers don’t care.