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Switched On: The fight, the fancy, and the future

Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

While Microsoft's motivations in announcing Surface differed meaningfully from Google's when it announced the Nexus One, the Redmond company took advantage of the precedent that Google set in releasing a device that competed with those of licensees. At Google I/O, it was Google's turn to again approach the hardware market, this time with three devices that took the company into new categories and targeted different competitors. The trajectory of each product reveals clues about the company's direction.

Nexus 7

When compared with those at last year's Google I/O, this year's keynote presentations were virtually free of anti-Apple jabs; that level of chiding betrayed the kind of rising tension between the companies that Switched On discussed a few weeks ago. Indeed, Google -- playing by Apple's rendering engine rules -- brought its Chrome browser to iOS and used Macs to showcase several products. Some of this may have been about extending a public olive branch to Apple, which Google must now rely on if it is to bring its Maps functionality back to iOS as a third-party app. But some of it may be in recognition that Android-powered tablets have made limited inroads against Apple's 10-inch tablet.

With the Nexus 7, Google explores a market opportunity that begins at half the iPad 2's price. And while we have seen several 7-inch Android tablets from the likes of Acer, HTC, Lenovo and Samsung (which has released three of them), the Nexus 7 clearly takes aim at the market's No. 2 tablet, the Amazon Kindle Fire. This is apparent from the Nexus 7's limited specs, including the lack of a camera and expandable memory, its use of widgets to bring media front and center, and its focus on integration with Google Play, the larger app selection of which Amazon has forsaken in order to provide benefits related to Amazon Prime. The tale of the tape will pit those Prime-related services and the excellent exposure to Amazon's customers that helps make the Kindle Fire so popular against the Nexus 7's sleeker design, wider app selection and more recent operating system and processor.

Nexus Q

In the world of Star Trek, Q is an omnipotent being, but the Nexus Q begins its journey without many capabilities despite its relatively well-appointed internals. Like the Nexus 7 tablet that also debuted at Google I/O, the Nexus Q is integrated with Google Play. But while the Nexus tablet goes toe-to-toe with the Kindle Fire on price, the Q debuts at three times the price of its closest rival, Apple TV, and without access to much of the content available from the even less expensive Roku 2. That latter point might be compensated for by the Q having access to Google's own Google TV platform, but it does not. Even as Sony and Vizio have recently debuted new TV add-on products that support Google TV, its third major U.S. partner, LG, recently became a founding member of a rival group seeking to bring apps to TV.

The Q's unusual mix of high price demanding high value, advanced hardware enabling it, and uncompetitive feature set would indicate strongly that Google could position the Q as a platform. It does, after all, run Android and debuted at a developers' conference. Until more is revealed, though, Q may stand for Quandary.


Tablets and ... whatever Q is may have their place. But, let's face it, they're not going to do you much good when you're jumping out of a blimp onto the roof of a convention center. Google Glass is the webcasting device of choice for such skydivers and those with similar needs. A small throng of would-be Geordi La Forges agreed as they signed a promissory note to Google for $1,500, earning them an engraved rectangular coaster and the privilege of being among the first to experience some of the most high-tech eyewear ever created. Glass represents Google's first play for the post-smartphone era, the era of wearable technology that will likely represent the last step before the devices that augment our capabilities become implants.

Several companies experimenting in this area are using the wristwatch as a window into what's happening on our phones, and at least one of those -- from WIMM Labs -- runs Android. But Glass is different, a capture device that melds the Looxcie idea of transparent video recording and transmitting with augmented reality. Clearly, the extra bulk that has plagued many smartwatches is nothing compared to the stigma that at least the first iteration of Glass will cause. But the company that owns YouTube has clearly seen the value of a repository where anyone can easily upload any kind of video. And the one that develops Android has seen the value of supplying relevant content to you wherever you are, whenever you want it, for however long people are staring at that thing you're wearing on your face.

Ross Rubin (@rossrubin) is executive director and principal analyst of the NPD Connected Intelligence service at The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.

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