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Why Google Struggles With Hardware.

I have always had a lot of respect for how the search engine has evolved. Google has made several natural, and sometimes questionable, extensions to its product portfolio en route to a market cap of over $900B.

By Sheldon De Sousa , in Product Management , at November 16, 2019 Tags: , , , ,

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Why Can’t I jump On The Google Train?


Amidst much of the criticism and skepticism that Google has faced over the years, I have always had a lot of respect for how the search engine has evolved. Google has made several obvious, and sometimes questionable, extensions to its product portfolio en route to a market cap of over $900B. In particular, I’d like to discuss their interest in hardware.

I must admit upfront, that I can hardly begin an online search without Google or avoid infotainment via YouTube.  Additionally, Google houses several software products that really add value.

But, when it comes to hardware, I just can’t seem to form a connection. Being a gadget geek, I was a little curious when I discovered that of all devices I’ve bought, used, sold or stored away, a Google device wasn’t present.

Now, when you think about it, Google isn’t a hardware company. It’s a search engine that generates almost all its revenue from ad sales, 84% (Q2, 2019). The remainder of which comes from Google Play, Cloud and its Hardware division – mobile phones, tablets, laptops, smart home devices etc.

Google’s hardware journey has composed of a mix of partnerships, acquisitions and in-house development. Its portfolio looks a bit like this.

Google-Hardware-Product-Portfolio

Please note that I have deliberately organized sub-brands according to a distinction I feel makes more sense because Google tends to mix up the Crome/book/pixel theme into a format that is confusing and disconnected. More on this later.

Anyway, to cure my curiosity, I stopped by Best Buy to play around with the latest Google gadgets. Their mobile devices have come a long way from what I remember, but, they still fall short of counterparts. While I have no reason to doubt the capability and usefulness of the devices, I have to question the serious lack of attention to aesthetics. They aren’t very exciting. The laptops are a few stops better and their home devices seem to own their class. The Nest and Google Home line of products on the other hand are appealing and reflective of their market shares. We have to concede that the origins of Nest come from Apple alumni.

Google mobile phones have not made a dent in the worldwide market, otherwise ruled by Huawei (20%), Samsung (19.5%), Apple (13.5%) and Xiaomi (10.2%)*. In laptops, it trails HP (26.6%), Lenovo (18.3%), Dell (16.75%), Apple (8.92%), Asus (8.4%) and Acer (7.5%). They have made headway in education though.

In tablets, it’s a no-show against Apple (32.3%), Samsung (18.1%), Huawei (12.4%) and Amazon (9.3%)*. Apple’s share once stood at 60% in 2011.

However, we do have to make some concessions, because frankly, Google’s brand equity in hardware has some distance to cover. It’s also a little late to an extremely competitive party. In addition, Google’s privacy concerns continue to haunt them. I’m not much of a fan of their advertising either.

Here are some of the things I feel Google needs to work on.

  • Google’s issue with privacy and personal data usage plague its foray into hardware products as users see them as Google’s prying eyes. Google needs to tackle the elephant in the room. FYI, Apple’s marcom team has used this to their advantage.
  • Google employs several brand portfolio architectures within the hardware division as opposed to settling on a stable convention. Remember, internal understanding does not always mirror external comprehension. The diagram provided above is cleaner than what I’ve seen through online sources.
  • Aesthetically, Google seems to have devoted limited resources to design elements. Having tons of information on how users use mobile devices or what they want from them isn’t all. Humans are visual beings.
  • The price tags are on par or within striking distance of competitors who are more entrenched, and quite simply, have more on offer.
  • In terms of packaging, it’s almost clear where Google gets its cues from. But to create its own uniqueness, Google needs to ‘think different-ly‘.
  • Android is both a boon and a bane. With every other mobile phone on the market sporting a similar OS, it’s hard to develop any sort of individuality. Yes, it makes perfect sense for Google and from a developer standpoint, but a bit more personalization is needed to create further distinction.

On a side note, when I watched “Life at Google” on Youtube, it seemed obvious that members on the hardware team were very concerned about engineering a good product. The trouble is, engineers tend to get lost in practicality and technical sense, leaving the opportunity to push some boundaries on the table. Engineers tend to think linearly. Empathy trails a bit when you focus on the product and not the user.

*Data Q2,2020 by Statista (updated)
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