Google's grand plan for Nest goes way beyond the Internet of things

Physical devices are becoming just as important as digital services in achieving Google's know-everything ambitions

When Google buys a company, the results aren't usually pretty. Nearly all get shut down, their technology sometimes absorbed into the gargantuan data-capture engine that is Google's services and apps business. A few stick around, although heavily Googleized. This was the case with Android, an ostensibly open source effort that Google runs as it pleases, and Motorola Mobility, whose original staff was decimated and whose 3LM security technology was jettisoned.

So Google's purchase of Nest -- which makes smart thermostats and smoke detectors -- for $3.2 billion raised both fears and questions. Will Google turn Nest devices into another data-sucking portal, or mutate them into ad-laden services that you must literally rip out of the wall to avoid? Hopefully not. Will Google shut down Nest's hardware business in the next year? Hopefully not.

The good news is that there's actually good reason for Google to leave Nest fairly well alone and alive.

Although some pundits exclaimed that Google's Nest acquisition indicates a turning point whereby Google has gotten serious about the Internet of things, Google has been invested in the Internet of things long before the term was invented. Google certainly started as a search-engine company that made money from ads. But years ago it moved its ambitions into being a universal data collector not only to power its advertising business through intimate customer knowledge, but also to serve as a common fabric for all services to use. After all, the more services you use, the more Google can discern about you.

My belief is that sometime in the last four years Google realized that it could do more than profile users for highly targeted advertising. It realized it could create an ecosystem in which users could act on all that intelligence themselves. They would be more than passive information consumers; they would be active participants and shapers of their digital -- and even physical -- environments.

Google bought smartphone maker Motorola Mobility in August 2011, smartwatch developer Wimm Labs in summer 2012, launched and then abandoned the Nexus Q media streaming device in summer 2012 but then delivered the Chromecast in summer 2013, and bought military robot maker Boston Dynamics in late 2013. Google's self-driving car efforts fits in this group.

Google finally realized that Apple was serious about its iOS in the Car effort (not obvious to most of us in the first 15 months after its June 2012 debut). So last week Google announced its own connected-car alliance, modeled after the Open Handset Alliance it used to launch Android in 2007. An embedded version of Android, not so surprisingly, is one of the main operating systems used in the new wave of Internet-of-things devices, which used to be considered boring embedded systems until the IoT moniker stuck in 2012.

I believe more is to come -- an acquisition of Automatic would make sense, for example.

The strategy seems to be to supplement Google's broad platform of services like Google Now, Google Apps, and Google+ with special-purpose devices that may or may not connect with those services but that nonetheless further the goal of learning everything about everybody while providing a tangible benefit to users: home automation, car automation, perhaps even health automation. I believe Google has realized that physical controls and systems are just as useful and important to people as digital ones, so it's expanding its services mentality to include devices. Where once Google looked only at acquiring or developing digital services like the DoubleClick ad-delivery technology, now it sees physical devices in the same light.

Consider the PowerMeter effort that Google shut down in 2011. It let you track your energy usage -- but so what? You couldn't act on that information in any immediate way. And your power bill had at least the basic info each month conveniently arriving in your mailbox. By contrast, the Nest thermostat lets you control your thermostat whether you are home or not, and it can be programmed to turn off when it detects you are away, as well as adjust your preset patterns based on your actual patterns of presence. That's much more compelling and useful than an online energy report, which Nest also provides for data junkies.

PowerMeter is the old Google mentality; Nest is the new one.

There's one place Google may fear to tread: health automation. The company tried out a personal health vault called Google Health in 2008, then shut it down in 2011 because the stringent privacy requirements of the U.S. health care system essentially meant Google couldn't apply its standard data-sucking business model. Although fitness devices have a very light regulatory burden, devices that are more medical in nature cross into territory that is not Google's strong suit because privacy begins to be taken very seriously.

Until Google figures out how to game or change that system, it may stay outside health automation. But don't be surprised if it adds more and more smart devices to its portfolio as it brings the physical world increasingly into its digital ambitions.

This story, "Google's grand plan for Nest goes way beyond the Internet of things," was originally published at Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow on Twitter.

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