Mike Isaac

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With Sights Dead Set on the Living Room, Google Debuts A Streaming Media Device

The battle for your living room rages on. Touting consoles, boxes and premium content delivery services, companies such as Apple, Microsoft and Amazon continue to jockey for digital supremacy.

And now Google has fired a cannonball.

The company unveiled the “Nexus Q” media device at its I/O developer conference in San Francisco on Wednesday, a $300 black orb-shaped amplifier capable of wirelessly streaming music and playing video to connected devices, with the specific locus situated inside the home.

The device will essentially act as a gateway to Google Play, the company’s online digital content distribution portal. The Q connects to users’ Play music accounts — which were initially debuted at last year’s I/O conference as Google Music accounts, before Google launched a massive rebranding campaign in March — and streams tracks directly from the cloud to the device, which acts as an amp that connects to speakers inside the living room. It’s directly comparable to a Sonos in utility and function.

As is often the case with Google, there are twists. The Q is powered by the Android operating system, and is controlled via your Android-powered smartphone or tablet devices. Directly from the phone, users pick tracks from their Google Play music libraries and add them to their playlist “queue” (hence the device’s name). What’s more, multiple users can add tracks from their disparate music accounts to the same queue, creating what Google calls a “party”, essentially a modern take on the collaborative playlist with a nod back to the days of record-swapping listening parties.

The Q’s most striking qualities, however, have nothing to do with its utility. Completely distinct from the handsets and tablets it has worked on with partner companies, the Q was designed entirely in-house by members of the Android team. In essence, it is Google’s first foray into becoming a proper hardware company.

With this its first true hardware product, Google is aiming at the high end. With a matte black finish and a minimalistic, spherical shape, there are familiar traces of that famous Silicon Valley company that pays obsessive attention to hardware and design detail. Indeed, project leaders Joe Britt and Matt Hershenson — the two of whom previewed the Q on stage at I/O last year under the code name Project Tungsten — both come with an Apple hardware pedigree. This is Google making a clear statement: Not only can it do hardware, it can do hardware well.

The hurdles, as it would seem, most likely do not lie on the hardware side. The challenge is drawing users to Google Play, the online digital content storefront forced to compete with the iTunes juggernaut, a content portal that just last quarter accounted for $1.9 billion in Apple’s overall revenues. Google hasn’t broken down what percentage of its revenues Play is responsible for, though according to some reports, it is far less than that of iTunes.

While those two continue to duke it out, the war amongst the big four — Amazon and Microsoft as well as Apple and Google — continues to inch further into the living room. The $100 Apple TV device remains a modest — though still significant — foothold inside the home, offering streaming media capabilities across devices with its Airplay service. Microsoft’s biggest beachhead lies in the Xbox console, one of the company’s largest recent successes. Already installed in tens of millions of living rooms, the Xbox serves as a portal to downloadable Microsoft content like games, video and, as the company recently announced at E3, an Xbox Music service. And Amazon’s Cloud Player, MP3 store and Amazon Prime services also offer content across multiple platforms, including the Xbox.

Now, it’s a chicken and egg problem for Google (and to some extent, Microsoft and Amazon). As Apple’s content ecosystem grew over time, iPod and iPhone sales strengthened iTunes, and in turn iTunes strengthened hardware sales. That sort of momentum will be difficult for Google to reproduce, especially considering its content platform is years behind that of Apple’s in terms of both titles offered and users engaged. That obviously gives consumers less reason to buy the Q, and a lack of interest in that hardware can only serve to weaken Google Play’s traction.

The secret sauce here, however, is Android. If Google can leverage Android’s significant lead in mobile market share and convince users to migrate their music to Google’s cloud service, perhaps consumers will see the utility in switching over to a Google-centric universe, one rooted in hardware, software, and Google-distributed content.

So Q as well as Google Play are big bets for Google, a company whose ambitions now lie far beyond that of organizing the world’s information. When the device actually launches, we’ll see if customers are eager to line — or queue — up.

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