Google Inc is growing up. This may seem a strange thing to say about a company that has long been one of the most profitable digital enterprises, but until now Google’s software success has been achieved on machines made by other people.
The company founded in 1998 by Sergey Brin and Larry Page has not run a retail empire or factories. It has not had to manage a physical distribution network, or provide a public customer services helpline.
While its products reach around the world, they do so virtually — often slipping through the nets that states have designed to contain more tangible businesses on issues such as taxes or copyright.
All that is changing. In August, Google will begin recruiting a workforce of 2,000 to assemble mobile phones at a plant just outside Fort Worth, Texas. From there, it will make what it claims are the only US-assembled smartphones.
Google is ready to take on Apple Inc in every way, not only with its already best-selling Android software, but by designing and assembling a machine to run it. As Apple begins to look like it is running out of ideas, Google is eager to prove it can become the new digital game-changer.
In 2011, when Google bought the ailing US handset maker Motorola Inc, everyone assumed it was for the patents and that Motorla’s manufacturing business would be auctioned off once Google had extracted the intellectual property needed to protect Android from lawsuits.
However, Google’s plan was much more ambitious. Apple’s success has been built on being able to control both hardware and software. Now Google will go one better: It will control the manufacturing too, by bringing it closer to home.
Has Google grown up enough to become the new Apple? Page and Brin have proved they can disrupt the “status quo.” By sucking in the world’s information and making it retrievable, Google’s search engine has shaken the media industry to its foundations and, despite being launched after Apple’s iOS, Android has become the international standard for smartphone software — three-quarters of smartphones sold in the first three months of this year run it.
Later this year, the two companies will go head to head. Apple is overhauling iOS and there are rumors that it will release updated versions of everything from iPads and iPhones, to its music store iTunes at a big bang event in September.
Motorola’s relaunch, two years in the making, is scheduled to happen before October with the arrival of the futuristic Moto X, a phone so clever it can guess what its owner wants to do next. Position and motion sensors will detect whether the handset is being held up to take a photograph, or sitting on the dashboard of a car and change its behavior accordingly.
Pull the phone out of your pocket and Android automatically launches the camera app. Start your engine and Android enables voice control. Put the kettle on and Android switches to silent mode, fetches the tea bags and runs to the shops to get a pint of milk.
However, technology’s new battleground is not the small screen in your pocket. It is wearable processing power such as the computerized glasses Brin is sporting at catwalk shows and Oscar parties in the hope of making them fashionable, or the “smart watch” that Apple is reportedly developing.
Yet although printing “Made in Texas” on the back will help Google sells phones in the US, it will take more than that to convince grown-ups to adopt its camera-toting eyewear.