Google’s trying to win at hardware. Meet the woman altering its design
“To Google” entered dictionaries a long time ago, but what does ‘Google’ mean when you hold it in your hands? Does it come down to subtle touches, like the small mint-green power button on the side of my blue Pixel 2 smartphone, the positioning of the fingerprint scanner on the back, or the “side squeeze” to launch Google Assistant?
Defining a hardware identity has become hugely important for Google, because over the past few years it’s been trying to move beyond search, software, advertising and artificial intelligence to also make its mark in hardware. That’s especially vital now, as the company has not just launched its new Pixel 3 smartphone, but also its Google Home Hub and a range of new laptop and tablet devices. A newcomer in the world of hardware, Google is trying to be recognisable, as to better compete with stalwarts such as Apple, Amazon and Samsung.
But it’s tough. Most smartphones look the same and Google's hardware record has some bad decisions. Back in April 2013, when the company released the prototype of its Google Glass augmented reality headset, the limitations of the company’s in-house hardware design team became painfully obvious. The Glass flopped, to the point that it was pulled from the market less than a year after its launch with a cool $1,500 (£990) price tag. Google took notice, and in 2014, brought in jewellery designer Ivy Ross to rescue the troubled Glass – and soon afterwards lead the technology giant’s hardware design team. You might have not heard of Ross – but it’s this soft-spoken, grey-haired woman who would later add the mint-green power button to the Pixel smartphone. It’s Ross who turned your Google speakers into river pebbles. It’s Ross who signs off any other Google hardware product before it hits the shelves. Can she turn the search giant into a mighty hardware design leader – and even nudge people to like Google Glass?“I do not think design is the only part they [Google] are rethinking,” says Carolina Milanesi, a smartphone analyst. “It is about the experience. While these devices must be visually appealing, it is really about what they do, not how they look that matters.”Still, up until two years ago, Google didn’t really have hardware ambitions. Its Nexus line of handsets was not designed in-house; it was simply intended to showcase Android. But with Android’s position in the market now unassailable, there is intense competition between manufacturers to create the best Android phone – and Google doesn’t really need Nexus to showcase Android’s features any longer. So what changed? The iPhone's golden age is over, Apple will only charge fans more WIRED Opinion The iPhone's golden age is over, Apple will only charge fans more Well, it seems that Google has finally realised that it can’t grow through software alone. It has to own more of the experience to point to a new vision for search and artificial intelligence that is ubiquitous across all aspects of our lives, says Ian Lee, creative director at global design firm frog. That’s why in 2014 the company put Ross in charge, launched its first #MadeByGoogle event and produced a video commercial for its hardware. The spot clearly tell’s Google’s vision: the outline of a search box on a white background slowly morphs into the outline of a phone over the course of 30 seconds. “That vision marked a huge stake in the ground for Google’s hardware design efforts then and for the future,” Lee says.Google’s first Pixel device, the Chromebook Pixel laptop, was announced in 2013. The first smartphone of the line was released in 2016. One reason for developing the phone was to support Google’s ambitious Project Fi in the US, which requires an eSIM. Daniel Gleeson, a senior analyst of consumer technology at the consultancy Ovum, also sees a much longer play. The first Pixel launched just as the European Union was beginning to investigate Google’s alleged antitrust breaches. “It is very possible that Google anticipated the EU’s ruling this year, which will force it to loosen the rules around Android, and wanted to get a device in the market that was unapologetically Google-centric,” he says. Its aim? Demonstrating and building Google services in a way that Android manufacturers might not offer once Google’s lock on Android devices is broken.But Google moved quickly to extend its reach beyond smartphones and laptops. With Glass, the public verdict was clear: “technology on your face and in your face is obnoxious,” says Francois Nguyen, creative director at frog. While technically it could achieve what it said on the tin – internet in front of you – the Glass appeared before people really understood augmented reality (AR), voice user interfaces and digital assistants, the three components at the core of the headset. It was a device that was ahead of its time – falling victim to a similar social stigma as the very first Bluetooth headsets. Even today, AR and Mixed reality headsets are very much a nascent category – whether it’s Glass, Microsoft’s HoloLens or Magic Leap’ One, which all are struggling to make their mark in the broader market. Glass also suffered from the “creepy” camera factor, says Matthew Cockerill, creative director and head of Studio at Swift Creatives, a design company in London. “To many, Glass was emblematic of Google’s blasé attitude to privacy,” says Gleeson. A huge backlash ensued, including bans in public spaces and even attacks on people wearing Glass. When Ross joined Google to save Glass, she couldn’t keep it afloat. It was too late (or too early). Google had tried to juggle too many balls at once – attempting to reconcile the challenges of an innovative engineering package in a small form factor with the right ergonomics, aesthetics and ethics to appeal to a diverse user base. “It was more a UX failure than a hardware design failure,” says Cockerill. But Glass is not dead. A second iteration of the device has found its way into some industries, with companies such as Boeing, GE, DHL, and Volkswagen actually deploying the devices for real work. Industry, says Cockerill, doesn’t worry about aesthetics, as long as a device boosts quality and productivity when – for example – installing wind turbines. Inside Facebook's fight to beat Google and dominate in AI Facebook Inside Facebook's fight to beat Google and dominate in AI To resurrect Glass for consumers, “the challenge will be in hardware technology to make it the right power, the right size, and the right look,” says Lee. “Ivy Ross’s background in jewellery design could certainly help to push some of these factors needed for a successful product.”Ross says that she is ready to make the wider public fall in love with Google’s hardware offering. As vice president of design, her job has been to define what Google looks like when you hold it in your hand. How can you translate the familiarity of Google’s search box, its Chrome browser or even Android from the digital into the physical world? Ross’s new colleagues at Google were sure about the answer: “Quirky,” they said. “You know we are quirky, what are you even thinking about?” “I’d tell them: no!,” says Ross as I meet her in her hot-desk office at Google’s London HQ. “You don’t want to be quirky in your hardware.” The room is small, but definitely quirky with rounded corners. Ross’s devices are just like the room: they are unobtrusive, without sharp edges, even covered in fabric. It’s not boring, but also not ‘in your face’.That’s the direction where Ross wants to take Google. She calls it “human, optimistic and bold”. The human part, she says, are the softer, more tactile shapes, including the use of fabric; optimistic, that’s reflected in the colour range “so that it’s what’s appropriate to your home or when you carry these things with you… surprising and delighting people”; as for bold, that may to look to most people more like subtle touches, like the sudden splash of colour on the green or orange power buttons of the Pixel.When the company first unveiled its minimalist aesthetic for hardware products at last year‘s #MadeByGoogle event, the reviews were both positive – and showed surprise. “This was the first time I’d seen a major tech company hold an entire event just to celebrate its achievement in aesthetics. And it was a sight for sore eyes,” wrote a reviewer at TheNextWeb. The Verge said “Google may not yet be fully fluent in the language of hardware design, it has certainly developed a very impressive vocabulary.” Complicating the picture is Google’s acquisition of home security and IoT start-up Nest in 2014, with products that have a futuristic and technology-centric look and feel. Both business units had quite different hardware strategies and design philosophies, says Lee. Now Google is bringing together Google Home and Nest to better tackle the fast-growing smart home category.Design aesthetics, of course, go in and out of fashion. Much of today’s design language has been inspired by – or positioned as a contrast to – the work of Jony Ive at Apple, says Nguyen. It has made consumers more aware of good design. They now expect it and demand that it’s fresh and relevant. Ross is acutely aware of that. She and her team have just launched the Google Home Hub – a smart home device with a screen and speaker, but without the camera that’s standard on Amazon's and Facebook's products. The idea was to create something halfway between a beautiful picture frame and a ‘black-box’-like smart home device, says Ross. “We wanted to find something really simple, we wanted the screen to float – but we also wanted to make sure the sound was powerful enough,” she says. Her team designed about 200 different paper models, but always with the intention to cover the speakers in soft fabric. Softness is common in Google's hardware. The Pixel 3 has an optional fabric case; Google’s small home speakers look like pebbles worn smooth in a river, thanks to a soft fabric in a very specific shade of grey; a new tablet, the Google Pixel Slate, may have no fabric, but the rounded keys on the keyboard give it an unusual soft look.Today, it’s not just Google focusing on soft forms and materials. Apple, Amazon and other big players are also designing their products to fit blend into more intimate, domestic environments. But Google was there first, “establishing a design language distinct from the minimalism of Apple and Samsung’s expression of pure technology,” says Cockerill. “They’ve pushed the use of fabrics to a new level along with interesting colours and colour accents.” Review: Google's Pixel 3 XL is great but AI and Android are the stars Phones Review: Google's Pixel 3 XL is great but AI and Android are the stars The challenge for Google is now not “to differentiate itself from what it is doing just because others are copying them, but to keep their design DNA and vision intact and uncompromising,” says Lee. Look at Amazon’s Echo, he adds, “when they decided to make it fabric and round and more friendly, versus their original cool, hard edge technology aesthetic. It took a little more effort to know if it was an Echo or another product.”For Ross, the round edges and soft fabrics hiding the technical capabilities are not just a hangover from her creative past as a jeweller, it’s also, she says, because she’s a woman. “I believe we need masculine and feminine perspectives, it’s more a balance of perspectives. Using intuition versus data is more feminine, and in some ways even in hardware.” However, “design and software capabilities do not always go hand in hand,” says Milanesi. Take Google’s Pixel Buds, which look good, but did not live up to the hype, especially its real-time translation feature. It’s work in progress, and arguably arrived too early, just like Glass, says Gleeson. “The translation technology is impressive, but in practice it is too slow and talking to someone while using headphones is very much a faux pas,” he says. Asked what her team is working on next, Ross just laughs and says that Google is set to be a hardware player for a long time to come. Will she bring us a foldable phone, just like Samsung’s new concept phone? Well, Google is not doing things just because they are possible, says Ross. “I don’t think we need a new phone form factor tomorrow,” she says. Of course, that doesn’t stop Google from working closely with Samsung on the software to make the foldable phone happen. It’s certain that the company will continue to focus its innovation on software, camera capabilities, sensors and AI, adds Ross – all with the aim of creating a connected ecosystem. Because eventually, she says, technology is bound to become very fluid. “What you have at home will be very fluidly connected to what you wear outside, and we want to be there with you.” That makes sense – considering that computing and all the associated services are spilling from the physical and digital boundaries of a handheld, app-centric smartphone onto more and more products in our daily lives. Should Google even bother with its own hardware, though? Absolutely, says Gleeson – hardware is the best way to ensure Google’s services will be used and will gain acceptance in the market. Just like Amazon’s Alexa, which first gained its popularity through Amazon’s Echo, but is now finding its way onto third-party devices.However, to leap ahead of its rivals and deeply connect with consumers, Google needs a vertical approach similar to Apple and Microsoft. After all, Google’s hardware sales are still tiny. Google needs to deliver user experiences that integrate hardware, software and services, says Cockerill. “As the big three battle it out, it's this presence and the gains that can come from tightly integrated user experiences that will allow them not only to differentiate, but ultimately survive and seek supremacy in today’s highly disruptive market.”More great stories from WIRED– Scientists explain why Hyperloop is so dangerous and difficult– The suspicious Facebook page pushing Brexit ads to millions– Why India is turning off the internet to fight fake news– These photos show the devastating impact of human progress– How to hack your brain to remember anythingDon’t miss out. Sign-up to WIRED Weekender to get the best of WIRED in your inbox every weekend