By Dan Moren
August 18, 2015 10:53 AM PT
Google gets into the Wi-Fi router game…and plants a flag in your house
Note: This story has not been updated for several years.
In some ways, I’m surprised it’s taken Google (or is it Alphabet?) this long to get into the router game. Apple’s been making routers since 1999–16 years.1 All of Google’s services depend on being online, so making it easier to get people online–and providing them with a good experience–seems like a smart move.
Everything’s managed not from a web interface, but an app for iOS or Android. This is one of my favorite features of Apple’s AirPort line as well, and it shows a keen recognition that the balance has shifted from traditional computing platforms heavily towards smartphones and, to a lesser extent, tablets. Google’s system is particularly interesting since it apparently can start setup with an Android device via an audio tone. That’s clever, as it doesn’t require any existing infrastructure. (Recent Apple TVs let you use Bluetooth to setup from your iPhone or iPad, which is a similarly clever solution.)
Google’s also made a point of saying that OnHub is designed to be out in the open, because that enables it to provide a better signal than if it’s hidden away in a deep, dark closet. That’s clever, and something that other networking hardware companies have kind of missed out on.2 But the cylinder with the glowing light at the top does look a bit familiar.
Perhaps the smartest thing about OnHub, though, is that it’s essentially a Trojan horse. I don’t mean that in a malicious sense, though I can fully understand the concerns about Google making the device that sits between you and the Internet. (Google, for its part, told Wired that it’s being very careful about protecting your privacy and traffic. Update: The company also spells out in a support doc exactly what information is collected–almost entirely about how your connection is being used–and how to disable it.) But even more significantly, the OnHub gives Google a foothold in your house.
Our home networks are only getting more complicated, what with smartphones, tablets, set-top boxes, computers, smart appliances, and more–and all those devices are now talking to each other. So in addition to Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, Google’s building in support for the popular Zigbee system, as well as its own home automation network protocols, Weave and the Nest-pioneered Thread. (I sense a theme there, though I’m not exactly sure what the relationship between those two is.) OnHub’s positioned to be just what its name suggests: a hub for all your devices. It’s not too hard to imagine future devices or Google ecosystem features that will work if you have an OnHub in your home.
Amazon’s playing a similar game with the Echo, though it’s building it around a voice interface to existing network services. Meanwhile, Apple’s long been rumored to be positioning the Apple TV as a similar clearinghouse when it comes to HomeKit.3
In the same way that all the major players wanted to be in your living room (and now are), the next battlefield is the wider home. And Google’s taking the very smart approach of using a process that most people find necessary but painful–setting up a Wi-Fi router–as the thin end of the wedge.
- Yes, Apple’s been making AirPort base stations since the year The Phantom Menace came out, had such a movie ever actually existed. ↩
- I sometimes wonder what that means for the AirPort line. Might it merge with the Apple TV at some point? Or will they stay independent, thus increasing the likelihood of buying one or the other. ↩
[Dan Moren is the East Coast Bureau Chief of Six Colors. You can find him on Mastodon at @firstname.lastname@example.org or reach him by email at email@example.com. His latest novel, the supernatural detective story All Souls Lost, is out now.]
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