In 2012 Patrick Gibson, a former Apple engineer who worked on the first iPad, said Google was fixing its biggest weakness, design, faster than Apple was fixing its own most significant shortcoming, web services. I think Gibson had it right.
If the crowd of new devices revealed this week didn't make it explicitly clear, Google is now a fully-functioning hardware company. That hardware might be build around big services like Assistant, but it's hardware with Google's name stamped on, where before its products felt like they existed just to be software showcases. The biggest surprise of all? Most of it looks great: simple, clean, with fabric stretching for miles.
Google's made considerable strides in design, be it to your taste or not, but it's in the home where it'll count most, a place where technology is going to be more about blending in than shouting out. "Our philosophy is that we really want to be in the background," Isabelle Olsson, Google's head of industrial design for Home and wearables, told me. "We want to be helpful and be there; it's not our goal to be the centre of attention."
We start working on a lot of the material palettes two to three years in advance
Everyone decided, us included, that the first Google Home looked a lot like an air freshener, but Olsson's decision to wrap it in fabric apparently paid off, because it's now on everything. In fact, Amazon even applied the same idea to its new Echo, while the new Google Home Mini looks like a tiny threaded pebble, and Olsson said Google went through 157 shades just to find the right grey. "You should see the design studio, the amount of little macaroons in our studio; it's funny. Just to get down to three."
That Olsson was working on furniture design before joining Google's design team in 2011 may have had something to do with what we're seeing now. "I'm excited to work on technology in the home because it brings me back to that space," she said. "We try to go to all the major furniture fairs. We go to Milan, which is usually pretty progressive, you can touch and feel the real stuff instead of just following the blogs."
Like the big fashion powerhouses, Google's design team is now trying to forecast material palettes two to three years in advance, like that pink – sorry, coral – colour on its new Home Mini speaker. "A lot of people were like how can you come up with this colour, it's trending this year," said Olsson, "and I'm like, well we worked on it two years ago. But we're taking influences from everywhere whether it be furniture or fashion or sports or automotive, and we put it all together and then look at it. Part of it is art, part of it is science."
"I think we've seen a lot of different versions of pink pop up a lot in the last year or so, and even in interior [at Google] people are looking at those colours a lot more, which was kind of unprecedented even a year ago."
If you look at all of Google's devices, there's a bit of a common design language throughout. Even the simplistic Mentos-like design of the new Google Pixel Buds (which also use a threaded cord) feel in tune with it. "We thought, how can we reduce the earbud to its very essence," said Olsson, "and just be this simple circle in your ear?" The partly-occluded shape won't be to everyone's tastes, but they're a darn sight better looking than AirPods.
While it's had fingers in hardware for many years, only in the last year or so has Google really started taking matters into its own hands. For getting Assistant into the home, it can't be sloppy. The home is a personal space, and Google will be competing with Apple, Sonos and other companies with proven design chops to get there.
As it happens Olsson was also the lead designer on Google Glass, and while the DNA of that product isn't obvious in anything Google's making now, Olsson has carried over some lessons from it. "One of the key things for Glass we did [was] develop an eyewear collection to make sure it could fit different kinds of people, and the home is such an intimate space, same with wearables… so I think a sensitivity to people's bar for those things is just extremely high, so sharpening the tentacles even further is something we have to do."