Those Rumored Google Stores Are Starting To Make A Lot Of Sense


When talking about Apple’s rise from near-bankruptcy to become the most valuable company in the world, people often credit the amazing string of products from the iMac to the iPod to the iPhone to the iPad. And rightfully so. But just as important was another piece of the puzzle that ensured said products would find mainstream appeal and acted as an accelerant for Apple’s success: the Apple Stores.

When Apple first got into the retail game a little over a decade ago, many people scoffed. In hindsight, Apple seems to do quite well when people scoff (see: here and here) — it sort of makes sense, if an idea was obvious, others would have done it. But others in Apple’s position had tried to do retail and failed (see: Gateway — complete with cows out front — Sony, etc).

Yet Apple became the most effective and prized retailer in the world.

Naturally, this led others to take a page from Apple’s playbook. Notably, Microsoft. And while the experiment is ongoing, so far, those stores do not appear to be taking off in the same way. So when you hear the news that Google is considering opening their own retail stores as well, you might, well, scoff. But I think that would be a mistake. I think Google could be poised to nail retail as well.

With the news today about the Chromebook Pixel, the pieces are all starting to come together. Google says it’s selling that product through the Google Play online store and through Best Buy’s and Currys PC World’s websites. (And they’ll be available to use, but not buy, inside some Best Buys and Currys.) That won’t be good enough.

Google has been attempting to sell various Nexus products through their online stores for years now. The results have ranged from some success (Nexus 4) to fail (Nexus One) to major fail (Nexus Q). The Best Buy results seem mixed as well. While Chromebooks are finally seeing some traction, it’s still minimal despite the reach of Best Buy.

What Google needs for these products is what Apple needed a decade ago: their own stores that they’re in complete control of to showcase their products.

You have to believe Google knows this — hence attempts to create Chromebook sales areas staffed by Google employees in places like airports. But they need permanent hubs. They need central locations in cities around the world where people know they can go for all their Google needs. They need people in those stores to play with their products. And they need Google-trained employees there to answer any questions. It’s not good enough anymore to see a spec sheet online. We’re in an era of new usage paradigms. Hands-on time is key.

This is especially true for Google with products like the Pixel and soon Google Glass. Average consumers are never going to buy these products online without having tried them first. These are not standard PCs that are simply faster than the last PC you bought.

Average consumers are never going to buy these products online without having tried them first.

Okay, but how can Google Play Stores (the presumptive name) follow in the success of Apple Stores and not the mediocrity of Microsoft Stores? By not exactly copying Apple.

One of Microsoft’s mistakes with their stores is that they’re carbon copies of Apple Stores. Anyone who walks into one immediately feels this. It was an obvious but insanely stupid strategy on Microsoft’s part. Microsoft is trying to play to Apple’s strengths instead of their own. And in the process they’re reinforcing just how good Apple is at what they do.

In the beginning, Apple Stores made sense because Apple was generally considered to make high quality products. But that can only be truly appreciated when consumers use them. And because OS X (and later iOS) were not as ubiquitous as something like Windows, there was a large barrier to entry in people buying their first Apple product. And big retailers were reluctant to give a lot of space to Apple at their stores because of their low market share. Classic chicken-and-egg. Apple needed their own physical stores.

I’d argue that they were the single most important factor in the iPhone’s success as well. Without the stores, Apple wouldn’t have had the same leverage over the carriers. They would have needed those carriers to sell the phones and would have likely had to strike some unsavory deals with those devils as a result (like another company that’s the focus of this post).

That Apple nailed other elements like the Genius Bar was just a very smart cherry on top of the strategy.

Microsoft has had almost the opposite problem. Basically everyone both knows and has used Windows, Office, etc. Retailers have been awash with PCs for decades. Yet Microsoft still decided to copy Apple’s store model. You could argue that they now need these stores to get people to play with their Surface products. But I’d argue that doesn’t help because those products are simply not very good. That is still the key, remember.

(Honestly, Xbox may be the best thing those stores have going for them, going forward. Microsoft may be wise to pivot the focus. Come for the Xbox, stay for the Surface and Windows 8. Maybe. Please.)

Consumers need to know what the hell Google Glass actually is.

In contrast, Google products have been improving since the first Android and Chrome OS products. And they seem to be at the point where they’re ready to be showcased in a retail experience. People need to know firsthand if they can replace their BlackBerrys or *shudder* iPhones with the Nexus 4 (yes yes, my thoughts on that device are still coming — it’s tough when you have another day job). They need to know if they can really use a laptop with an OS that is essentially just a web browser. They need to know what the hell Google Glass actually is.

But again, these Google Play Stores shouldn’t be Apple Stores. They shouldn’t be stark white minimalist spaces of carefully crafted wood, cement, and glass. They should look like Google products. They should be colorful and sort of playful. There should be a self-driving car in there. There should be Google Glass stations. Android devices galore. Chromebook areas. Maybe even Google TV. (Maybe.)

Every machine should be connected to the web (maybe via Google Fiber?) and prominently displaying or Google Now. Another key insight Apple had for Apple Stores was to let people play with their machines as they would in their homes. I recall going to stores like CompUSA back in the day and only being able to see PCs with canned demos playing on the screen. Those places didn’t want people just hanging out and using their machines. Huge mistake.

Microsoft would love people hanging out in their stores like they do in Apple Stores. Yet they don’t. Maybe that means internet access isn’t enough. So maybe Google should do something I always wish Apple would do: open a coffee shop in the stores (Google Ventures did just pour some money into Blue Bottle Coffee — just saying). Make the Google Play Store a destination for the connected wanderer. Loiter all you want, just keep $ earching for thing$ .

Other companies now look at Apple Stores with their mouths agape. $ 6000 in revenue per square foot — double their closest retail counterpart, Tiffany & Co (motherfuckin’ Tiffanys!). But that can’t be the focus. That can’t be why Google is getting into this business. It has to be all about showcasing great products that simply need a bit of hands-on time (or a bit of hand-holding) to be truly understood and cherished.

It feels like Google is primed for this.

[Image: Adapted from Flickr/turbulentflow]

TechCrunch » android

Hardware Hackers, Join Us At Disrupt In New York


I love hardware. That’s why I want you guys to bring some of the coolest hardware projects imaginable to Disrupt New York year. That’s why I want you guys in our Hardware Alley.

Hardware Alley is a one-day celebration of hardware start ups both young and old. The goal has always been to show off amazing hardware that we have written about over the past few months as well as a few surprises. Last Disrupt we featured the guys from Thermovape, Makerbot, and Lit Motors. This year we want to fill Disrupt NYC with more amazing companies.

For more details on Disrupt head over here. We’re looking for new or even unlaunched products as well as potential Kickstarter projects. Prototypes are fine as long as they’re amazing.

You can see the previous Hardware Alley participants here. You can sign up here. Bootstrappers can contact me directly at [email protected] if you need a break on price. Hope to see you in the alley… the Hardware Alley.

Our sponsors help make Disrupt happen. If you are interested in learning more about sponsorship opportunities, please contact our amazing sponsorship team here [email protected].

TechCrunch » Gadgets

Orange Ramps Up Own-Brand Range With 3 More Android Handsets, And Its First LTE Device, Has Sights On Windows Phone

Orange Lumo

Perhaps aware of the tsunami of news that will hit during Mobile World Congress, we are seeing an increasing amount of news releases coming out before the actual event. France Telecom/Orange has already told us about one device — an Android smartphone with Fujitsu aimed at the senior market — and now it is following that up with three more, own-branded, Android handsets aimed squarely at the middle market of smartphone users.

The Lumo (pictured) is the carrier’s first own-branded LTE device; the Nivo is a device aimed at the budget segment; and the San Remo is a large-screened 4.7″ device with a brushed-metal casing. All will be out in selected markets in the first half of this year.

And while each of these devices will come loaded with Android 4.1, Patrick Remy, the VP of devices for France Telecom, also notes that we may soon start seeing own-brand handsets from the carrier not built on Android. “There is no willingness to only have Android devices in this range,” he said. “We believe the best opportunity is with Android right now, but we are looking at other operating systems, specifically Windows Phone, but potentially others.” 

On the subject of Firefox OS — the mobile platform being built by Mozilla with other partners — “we are monitoring what is being done there,” says Remy. “We are not announcing any launch of such devices at this point in time, but we are definitely interested in that area and depending on the opportunities, there is a chance for an Orange-branded device among those.”

Remy also admits that Orange’s own-brand smartphone devices do not move the needle when compared to the volumes sold by carriers from smartphone leaders Samsung and Apple. But they are proving to be small hits for the carrier, specifically when targeting users in the mid-market — or “higher-end pay-as-you-go or lower end contract customers,” in Remy’s description.

This naturally means these devices do best in markets where these segments are biggest. “Not Luxembourg,” Remy joked of the very affluent little principality where the carrier offers services. But other markets do quite well. In Spain last year, Orange’s best-selling device was the Monte Carlo, another handset in its own-brand range. Overall sales of this line of devices has grown by 62% over the last year. But it’s telling that there are currently “no plans” for any of these three to be offered in the UK this year.

France Telecom/Orange does not release sales numbers on how well these smartphones do but did note that last year its entire range of own-branded devices — including both feature phones and smartphones — were about 10% of all handset volumes, “and that’s increased a bit to about 12%,” says Remy. He notes that within that proportion smartphones are a “significant part of that.”

Orange has struck deals with Alcatel/TCL, Gigabyte, Huawei and ZTE to make its own-brand devices. The Lumo and Nivo come from Gigabyte, whereas the San Remo is made by Alcatel/TCL, with Huawei and ZTE sitting out in this particular round.

Perhaps more than other European telcos, Orange has over the years dedicated a lot of time and energy to creating devices that are filled with Orange-customized services and the Orange brand. These devices play into that theme, but for now will not be packing as much Orange-punch as they can.

Baidu, for example, which has inked a deal with Orange to provide a customized browser for its devices, will not be making an appearance on the devices for now, although this may be something we will see going forward, says Remy. “They’ll come with our standard suite of services and customization,” he noted. These include customized lock-screens, the ability to port your services when roaming, and links to Orange services specific to your home country.

TechCrunch » android

Leap Motion Controller Ships Pre-Orders May 13, Hits Best Buy Store Shelves May 19 For $79.99

leap motion

Leap Motion today announced that its innovative motion controller for PCs will start shipping to pre-order buyers beginning May 13, and will launch in the U.S. at Best Buy locations on May 19. Full retail price for the Leap Motion Controller will be $ 79.99, the company announced, $ 10 more than the pre-order asking price.

If you’re looking for an earlier release date than the official retail launch, Leap Motion continues to accept pre-orders for the controller through its own website, for both international and U.S. customers, and American buyers can now also pre-order Best Buy as of today. Pre-orders direct from Leap will be shipped out to customers based on their spot in line. So far, Leap Motion has had pre-orders in the “hundreds of thousands,” the company tells me, though it isn’t releasing more specific numbers.

Leap’s controller ships with built-in support for Windows 7 and 8, as well as Mac OS X 10.7 and 10.8. It is bundled with Airspace, Leap Motion’s dedicated app store, where it will offer partner titles that incorporate Leap Motion controls, including games, utilities, art apps and more. Leap is also finally revealing some of those partners, including Autodesk, Corel Painter, Disney games and Double Fine’s music title Dischord. The Weather Channel will also field a Leap Motion compatible app, and ZeptoLabs has made Cut The Rope ready to work with the 3D input device.

“We’ve talked about our app store as a key way to distribute software that our developers are creating,” Leap Motion VP of Marketing Michael Zagorsek explained in an interview. “We’re not going into it too much right now, because we didn’t want to overshadow the launch date news, but we realize that we really need to shift the narrative of the company more and more to the apps that we’re working to create.”

The app store is a crucial one for Leap Motion to tell. It has managed to secure immense pre-launch consumer and tech industry attention thanks to some very impressive demos of Minority Report-style interaction with the computers we already know and love, but sustaining the momentum it has built will depend on making sure early adopters feel there’s a strong reason to keep using the Leap Motion Controller, rather than forgetting it in a closet. The Airspace software marketplace, which will be both a standalone downloadable app itself, as well as a web-based storefront, will be a big part of achieving that goal.

I should be very early in the Leap Motion Controller pre-order queue, and can’t wait to get my hands on (or floating in the air above, as the case may be) this device. For now, this demo of Realmac Software’s Clear for Mac to-do list being controlled by a Leap Motion Controller will have to suffice.

TechCrunch » Gadgets

HP’s Android-Powered Slate 7 Tablet Is Cheap And It Works, But Is That Really Enough?


HP surprised more than a few people earlier tonight when it officially revealed the Slate 7, a $ 169 Android tablet that’s set to ship in the U.S. for $ 169 in April. It struck me as a safe move for HP, especially after it whiffed so profoundly with its ill-fated TouchPad. After all, people are buying plenty of Nexus 7s, so clearly there must be a market for a cheap, small tablet.

I got the chance to muck around with the Slate 7 at Pepcom earlier tonight though, and to be quite honest, I’m not convinced HP has a winner on its hands.

One of the first things you’ll notice about the Slate 7 is its elongated 16:9 display, and the thick black bezel that runs around it. It’s actually rather reminiscent of Samsung’s 7-inch Galaxy Tab 2.0, another underwhelming Android tab that banked on its price tag to sell. The screen itself (running at 1024 x 600) was decent enough — it was generally very bright, but the colors displayed seemed dull and lifeless.

The Slate 7 seems to have been designed to be as inoffensive as possible. That’s not completely a bad thing — the stainless chassis and the soft-touch plastic that the Slate’s rear is swathed in are rather nice — but there are precious few other design niceties to be found here. Those looking for a little splash of color may be interested to know that a red version will also be available. The Slate 7 is also apparently loaded up with Beats Audio support, a trait it shares with its notebook cousins, but I couldn’t get a feel for it amid all of the noise of Pepcom.

As far as performance goes, what else is there to say? It works just about as well as you would expect a $ 169 tablet to: not that great. Swiping between home screens could be a little jerky (if it worked at all; quick swipes didn’t always get the job done), and there was a bit of delay as I went to fire up new apps — though some non-final software probably has something to do with that. The Slate 7 has a dual-core 1.6GHz processor and 1GB of RAM to work with, which is usually enough to tackle stock, unfettered Android 4.1 without too many hiccups, but I’m willing to chalk all this jerkiness up to a pre-production lack of polish for now.

Click to view slideshow.

While we’re talking about performance, HP’s booth representatives didn’t have many specifics on the dual-core processor, but a quick look at the settings revealed an option called “Rockchip system updates,” proving nicely that HP sourced the processor from China’s illustrious Fuzhou Rockchips Electronics company. Now I couldn’t care less who the chip came from if it does the job admirably, but the internals here don’t do much to wow. When asked about how HP was able to produce such an inexpensive tablet, HP’s pitchman pointed to economies of scale — order enough parts and the end product shouldn’t cost too much — but opting to go with a SoC from a largely unknown Chinese company probably didn’t hurt either.

What almost certainly will hurt HP, though, is the crowded playing field it’s diving into. There’s the Nexus 7 to compete with of course, but don’t forget devices like the Kindle Fire HD and the Nook HD. Each of them brings higher resolution displays into the mix, as well as tight access with each of their respective media environments for only $ 30 more out of pocket. That’s not to say that HP won’t work to solidify the ties between its new tablet and the rest of the HP ecosystem — the Slate 7 comes with the ability to wireless print to compatible HP printers.

For better or worse (my money’s on the latter), HP just doesn’t seem concerned with trying to differentiate the Slate 7 from any other Android tablet out there. To its credit, HP isn’t trying to position the Slate 7 as anything other than what it is: a very cheap mass-market play. I’m not convinced that this thing is going to be able to pull away from the pack just by undercutting the competition on price, but I could be wrong — the Slate 7 may be the right tablet with the right price tag at the right time.

TechCrunch » android