Google has gone on an acquisition tear in the last six weeks that has many tech industry watchers wondering about the company’s future direction – particularly when it comes to the Internet of Things.
Since the beginning of the fourth quarter, 2013, Google has acquired 14 companies with the latest, a $650 million buy of UK-based artificial intelligence software firm DeepMind Technologies hitting the wires yesterday.
In addition to the DeepMind buy, Google spent $40 million on Flutter, a maker of gesture recognition technology and $23 million on FlexyCore, maker of the DroidBooster App for Android. Earlier this month, it plunked $3.2 billion down for super hot smart home gear maker Nest.
Google’s size makes the exact amount spent on the other acquisitions is something of a matter of speculation. Google only has to disclose transactions that are deemed ‘material’ to the company’s finances – a number somewhere between $10m and $15m, if history is any indication.
What is clear is the theme that emerges from the acquisitions: robotics (Boston Dynamics and Japanese firm Schaft), artificial sensing (Industrial Perception) and home automation (Nest).
The question is where Google plans to go with all its new talent and technology. Many of the recent acquisitions have been grouped within Google X Labs, the company’s skunkworks operation that have birthed paradigm busting prototypes like the Google driverless car and Project Loon – a plan to float WiFi blimps over undeveloped areas to deliver the Internet to the unwired masses. Now under the lead of Andy Rubin, the father of the Android operation system, the X Labs have been given a mandate and budget to pursue disruptive technologies in areas like robotics.
Analysts have suggested that factory automation may be on the whiteboard. But concentrating these acquisitions in X Laps means there’s likely not a solid-line connecting the acquisitions to any planned product – Google Robot, or Google Home.
What’s more likely is that Google is looking to repeat its success with Android on the platform of the future: internet connected and autonomous devices. The company, after all, is about data – not hardware. Google is more than happy to give away its software for free (or nearly so) so long as the traffic and data generated by it flow back through its data centers. Web searches are one thing – but imagine the data aggregated from a world populated by billions of smart devices powered by Google technology. (TechCrunch has a nice write-up on that here.)
Connected vehicles are a good example: we already know that Google is working with automakers to make Android the default operating system for smart vehicles, even as Silicon Valley competitors (Cisco included) are making a play for connected vehicle business. Boosting its capabilities in artificial intelligence and remote sensing will allow Android (or some successor OS) to move in the same direction as the auto industry – and at the same velocity.
Google’s retrofitted, autonomous vehicle may be a skunkworks project, but there are plenty of firms that are in the business of making cars that Google is courting as partners. They’re already introducing automation in the form of crash avoidance and other driver assistance features. But as we’ve noted, those firms often lack the security and technology know-how to manage Internet connected devices in a way that is secure and resilient. They will be looking for a vehicle operating system that will allow them to double down on the smart vehicle features, and also provide a common, secure platform that is plug-able and app-able, making it easier for developers and third parties to work with.
So too in areas like home automation, where stove-piped products (Nest included) are already an impediment to wider adoption. As traditional end points like PCs and web browsers become vestigial, Google will need to find its way onto the endpoints in a not-distant future of intelligent home appliances. Nest gives it more than toe-hold there, but Nest and Protect are just two eyes in the home. Its robotics acquisitions may allow the company to develop the guts for a whole new generation of autonomous appliances and work-saving devices.