When Google unveiled the Nexus Q at I/O on Wednesday, there were cheers. But not until the designers and creators of the hardware came on stage to explain what it was for a good 5 minutes. Hell, they even put together a fantastic video showing the process of manufacturing the Q (in the good 'ol US of A!). Seriously, if you haven't watched it - watch it. The production values are outstanding.
And Google topped it all off by giving everybody at I/O a Q to... do stuff with. But what?
The Q is fairly limited in its capabilities at the moment. It can play back Google Music, Movies, TV, and YouTube - but it can only stream them. There's no support for Wi-Fi direct local playback from your Android device or other media storage facility. And the video playback isn't even very good - early reports suggest that 720p ("HD" on Movies / YouTube) content isn't being properly optimized for television playback, and even stuttering. Yikes. Then again, this is technically still a beta device, with beta software. But it won't be beta in 2 weeks.
But let's say, for the sake of argument, all the Q's launch features worked perfectly. Smooth, silky 720p video, an ideal music playback app on Android for the Q's "social playlist" feature (read: it currently sucks), and an amazing YouTube app for Jelly Bean (read: adequate at best). Would you pay $300 for it? I'm guessing the answer is somewhere between "probably not" and "not unless it came with $200 in the box." So what in the hell was Google thinking here?
Option A: They Weren't Thinking, And The Q Is Just A Really, Really Bad Idea
If Google never intends for the Q to do a lot more than it does now, it is a monumentally stupid product to start with. $300 to stream Google Movies / Music / YouTube to your TV? Wow, if only there was other hardware on the market with similar capabilities that was also better in almost every conceivable way. Xbox? Apple TV? I'm pretty sure even Roku has the Q beat in this regard. And they all have something in common: they're a lot cheaper. Like, a lot a lot. You can buy a 4GB Xbox for $200, an Apple TV for $100, and a Roku for $50. For $50 more than a Nexus Q, you could have all three (I don't know why you would, but you could). That should put things into perspective here.
Even if the Q eventually supports games or device-based video and music (eg, AirPlay) for local files, it will never live up to its much more all-in-one foes. If Apple TV hasn't been able to make a real dent in the marketplace, the Nexus Q isn't even going to scratch it. And let's not forget that Google TV basically ensures that this will never happen, unless Google decides to merge the two products into one (not likely).
If this were truly the Q's role to play, I'd deeply question Google's understanding of the consumer electronics market. But the fact is, I don't think even occasionally-out-of-touch Google misunderstands the market that much. Is it possible this was some pet project that got out of hand and Google will very soon realize they wasted a lot of time and money? Maybe, but I think that's a minute possibility. I think (and frankly, hope) greater things are afoot here, and I think Google is playing its cards very close to the vest.
Option B: Google Knows Something We Don't
If Option A were the reality, I'd call it now - the Q will be a complete and utter failure. But there's a reason they gave everyone at I/O a Q. And it's not just because Google's nice. Think about it - right now, the Q is basically a black box. It has been semi-hacked to at least run (but not play) games, and it has a microUSB port (for hacky things, presumably), but we really don't know very much about what's going on inside.
We know it has the same TI OMAP4460 chipset found in the Galaxy Nexus, some amount of flash storage, a decent discrete audio amplifier, and all the other pieces necessary for the Q to hook up to its various media and connectivity sources. We also know it runs some sort of heavily-modified version of Android 4.0.
Image via Wired
Remember Android@home? Remember how it never, you know, happened? We learned on Wednesday that it's now Google Play@Home. But that just entails the features Google outlined for the Q at launch. For the moment. We've heard rumblings that the Q actually contains something called a ZigBee low-power Wi-Fi chip, which is used in smart appliances and lighting (like the Peel smart remote and Nest thermostat). And we know TI makes ZigBee chips, so it wouldn't be terribly difficult to get one.
The reality is that Google is almost certainly still working on the vision it had with Android@home. Streaming music and movies are step one. If the Nexus Q is indeed a ZigBee device, it's probably what's known as a ZigBee coordinator - a central hub on the ZigBee network which other ZigBee devices connect, authenticate, and communicate through. And because the Q has Bluetooth and standard Wi-Fi, it can act as a bridge for your Android device to those connected pieces.
It could be light-bulbs, thermostats, dishwashers, refrigerators - any number of smart appliances. Suddenly, the Q is something very different. It's an Android-based hub to the next generation of household appliances and electricity. And your Android phone or tablet will be the interface through which all those awesome things are controlled. At that point, $300 sounds a little more reasonable. And let's not forget, these tasks don't exactly require cutting-edge tech. The Q needs enough horsepower to put out HD video and sound - those are the most processing-intensive tasks it will likely ever undertake. Beyond that, any smart-home / appliance stuff would be child's play for the dual-core processor in there for years to come. Google built the Q like a tank because it wants it to last.
And they gave everyone a Q because they want developers to (eventually) start playing with ideas for home automation. Think about it - you have a stationary device with basically every major wireless standard (Wi-Fi + ZigBee [probably], Bluetooth, NFC), a dual-core processor, and a number of connectivity options. The tinkering possibilities are certainly there.
The question, though, is if Google's bet on an automated "home of the future" will be a reality soon enough for the Q to have even been worth building. Google likes to be an early adopter, but if the home automation revolution turns out to be another decade away (or more), then the Q ends up as another failed experiment. And have no doubt - it's an experiment. Google is not aiming for mass-market success with this device, and at $300, they have to know they aren't going to get it. Yet.
The Q's design and hardware could easily weather 5 years, if not more, given its purpose. And the internals and connectivity could simply be updated if necessary. And the price will probably eventually drop, too. But we need things to use it with - a media center alone is just not enough, and I'm pretty sure Google knows this. The music and video streaming are more than anything a technical exercise, something Google knows how to do already and was able to implement out of the box. So what would make the Nexus Q worthwhile?
Imagine Ikea selling a $100 ZigBee ceiling fan, or a pair of ZigBee lamps. The ZigBee thermostat is already here. Refrigerators, washing machines. Coffee makers. Imagine the sorts of things that are modular - or at least easily replaceable. I think the fantasy-world where the average home's lighting can be controlled remotely is still a ways off (wiring), but don't forget to think small, too. Something as simple as setting your bedroom alarm clock from your tablet while you're in the living room watching TV can be, as Steve Jobs would say, magical.