The Nexus Q Is A Demo With A Profound Future

by Cody Toombs

I originally wrote this about a week after Google I/O 2012, shortly after the announcement of the Q. I've been putting off publishing it for months and I just got extremely decisive about clearing out some of my old queue of articles to get into the new year. It helps that I've also been hearing a lot of people starting to talk about the basic elements of this article, which I kinda want to claim some credit on for thinking of this stuff months earlier.

Forgive me, there are a couple of errors and details that have become outdated, but I think it's important to keep some of that in because it gives a good context to my thought process. I tried to format it the way I originally wrote it, but Google+ isn't good for formatting.

Ok, ok, ok... Just from the headline, I’m sure some people already want to call me a crackpot. Hold on a bit, hear me out. The Nexus Q really is a big deal, even if it’s not obvious yet.

For those who haven’t heard of the Nexus Q, it was the OTHER piece of hardware Google announced at I/O 2012. Coined as the ‘World’s First Social Streaming Media Player’, the Nexus Q is a set-top box sphere that allows anybody with an Android device to pair with it and control the playback of music and video. Oh, and it costs $300...

The general consensus is that $300 is a pretty steep price tag for a gadget that has no screen, no speakers, it’s not really portable, requires other devices to control it, and all it does is stream music and video from Google Play and YouTube. Sure, the Nexus Q maintains a shared playlist, but that’s really just a novelty; it’s a party trick that stops being fun when nobody feels like controlling the music, or worse, somebody with bad taste screws with the selection (we’ve all got friends like that). The price makes a bit more sense when you learn the Nexus Q is basically made from the insides of a Galaxy Nexus sans cellular radio and super-charged with a custom designed 25 Watt “Audiophile-Grade” amplifier. Despite the stuff inside, when you think of it as a set of features making up a product, very few people even consider the Nexus Q worthy of a $99 price point, and certainly not worthy of tripling that number.

Let’s be fair, the Q’s tech specs don’t make much sense. Out of the box, it can only stream 320kbps MP3s (not bad, but still technically lossy) and whatever TV and Movies you can find on Google Play. At best, this hardware might warm up while pushing 1080p video. There’s 16 gigs of storage, which seems contradictory for a device that must stream everything and remains connected 24/7. Even the Nexus 7 starts at 8 GB and is likely to go offline sometimes. So far, the only thing the storage is used for is a slimmed down version of the Android OS. We also have the audio capabilities which are squandered on compressed music and the few HD movies you might rent on Google Play. This hardware is overkill, why did Google make something so much more powerful than the software is prepared to use?

The Nexus Q is a Demo
A demo is meant to sell people on a product, to show how great a product would be if everybody bought the real thing. The Nexus Q is not that kind of demo. It was revealed at Google I/O, and as such, try thinking of it as a demo for developers. The hardware is legitimate and Google means business with it; the software is just meant as a proof-of-concept to show off the hardware. Let me explain... Imagine you’re an intern or a college student, and you’re assigned to write an application that uses all of the sensors, inputs, and outputs available on a piece of hardware while making it simple and interesting. What would you come up with? Probably something like this; it’s exactly the type of thing that would have been produced at my college. The software even has the bugginess and lack of polish that reminds me of a typical senior project. Everything the software does today is merely intended to demonstrate the hardware capabilities, but the Nexus Q was never intended to be just a shared playlist.

What does Google intend to do with the Nexus Q that will make it so special? Right now, that’s anybody’s guess, and certainly a well-guarded secret. I’ve got some hunches, but I’ll get to that later. Based on how buggy and incomplete the software is, Google clearly released a product they weren’t ready to put on the market.

A Preemptive Strike
How many people know that Google was the first company to make really good use of NFC on a smartphone? If you're following me, you probably do. How many iPhone users know that? A handful, maybe... This fall Apple will release the iPhone 5, almost certainly equipped with NFC and copying many of Android’s ‘Beam’ features. Likewise, Microsoft has announced that all Windows 8 devices will support NFC when they begin rolling out later this year. Google is releasing the Nexus Q, a very attention-grabbing gadget, to gain mindshare over the technology before Apple and Microsoft lay claim to it. In the same way that Apple worked so hard to claim gestures, Google wants to ensure everybody identifies NFC as their baby. Public perception becomes very important when patent battles inevitably go to court in a couple of years, it fundamentally sways the judges and jurors. In a move that Samsung might understand, I think the Nexus Q was released early for lawyers.

Releasing the Q today will also serve as a slap in the face of Apple. This is Google’s way of showing that they can come up with an accessory that is clever and stylish, while being fun and consumer focussed. The Nexus Q is capitalizing on a few newer technologies to make the Q easier for regular people, to "Feel Like Magic". Sound familiar? It should, it’s what Apple does to get so much credit with each major iteration of their product lines. The NFC-based pairing even feels like an Apple-like feature. If I were a betting man, I’d predict that Apple will be adding this exact feature to Apple TV once the iPhone and iPad have NFC. Apple has been forced to play catch-up with speech recognition, mapping and navigation, and now they might even have to play catch-up in the consumer home theater territory. Google is putting Apple into a very awkward spot by coming out with so many products before Apple can 'invent' them.

What’s Next?
Google has made news with the Q, and now it’s out in the world... Well, a few thousand are. Now, they need to do something with it before people decide it works better as a paperweight. How can Google make the device more appealing while turning a profit and advancing their initiatives?

One thing we know Google and Apple agree on; they want to see cable companies lose their grip on content. There are countless deals between cable tv providers and content providers to ensure the cost of selling digital content is expensive and laden with DRM if it’s even available. Very few sporting events can even be seen outside of a cable tv subscription. The Nexus Q, shirks the Google TV approach by relying exclusively on streaming content, completely doing away with the idea of overlaying the cable tv signal you’ve already got. They want to see the commoditization of cable providers, ultimately turning them into simple internet pipelines. By throwing their hat into the same ring with Apple, Google is effectively joining a war to start tearing down the cable cartel. With the announcement of Google Fiber (, they have taken the step into being a cable tv provider, putting them into position to pressure content providers to allow streaming of network programming. Once Google is streaming regular network content and sporting events, it’s merely a matter of creating a subscription system for the Nexus Q and flipping a switch to make it work.

Continuing down the path of television and content, we must never forget the promise of the upcoming Bananapocalypse (IT HAS BEGUN: BANANAPOCALYPSE). Seriously, go watch that video, even if you’ve seen it, it’s just that awesome. I’ll wait for you to get back... Unless you want to call Kevjumba and Jessica Alba liars (we would never do that), it sounds like Google is putting money into a new YouTube network called YOMYOMF. Based on the promo video, they are either the worlds greatest teases (ok, I might say that about Jessica Alba) or Google is getting into the content creation game. Have I mentioned how great that promo is? You don’t spend that kind of money on that many cameos if you’re only going to make a 5 minute vanity short. There’s more than just smoke here, this could be the beginning of a new era for Google where they may be running television and movie studios. Dear reader, you’re probably wondering what this has to do with the Nexus Q. The Q will evolve into a portal for users to access their regular network television, Play Store content, and Google-created content. All of that content will pass through a single internet connection to a single device. But there’s still more...

Interactive TV
Anybody watching Google I/O 2012 must have noticed the crowd reaction when the word “hackability” was uttered regarding the Nexus Q. I could almost feel the cheering through my laptop speakers. At the time, we all thought of this in the context of hacking Android. I think Google’s real goal is to extend the Q’s API to give developers the ability to hack around with media playback, hook into additional data about the content, and even take part in content creation. Remember how the Nexus Q is too powerful for what it does today? Well, it’s got just the right amount of power to do video editing for mashups and YouTube video responses. By turning devices like the Galaxy Nexus and Nexus 7 into remote controls, we now have highly interactive interfaces to this powerful “playback” device. Through all of these wirelessly connected devices, apps on the Nexus Q can access multiple cameras, microphones, touch screens and any other sensor on your phones and tablets. By now it’s pretty obvious that the Nexus Q can even pose as a game console, but that’s actually boring next to everything else I’ve mentioned.

Those may sound like some great ideas, but simpler applications will ultimately define the Nexus Q. A girl might want to watch a movie with her boyfriend a couple of hundred miles away. Somebody can write an app that gets two Q’s to play the same movie in sync. Perhaps, I want to record my own voice over, kung faux style (nsfw: Voice Overs - Saucy kung fu flavour), to share with my friends. We can do all of this in real time. This is the stuff that will make your neighbor and your boss want to buy the Nexus Q.

If anybody thinks the idea of interactive content is crazy, just remember, it’s coming from the same minds that will be bringing Project Glass to the stage next year. The ideology is about intersecting content from multiple places for the user, then allowing the user to give back to that content bubble. Google has already done this several times with Maps, Gmail, Google+ and other properties. The Nexus Q will become Google’s in-home appliance for regular people, connected to a big screen, and controlled by the phones and tablets they already use.

I couldn’t have written this article without mentioning Google@Home, formerly known as Android@Home. So far, it seems that we’re not seeing a whole lot coming out of this project. Some network-connected lights and the Nexus Q seem to be a fairly uninspired and relatively unrelated experiments. We already know that the Nexus Q is equipped with ZigBee (, a low-power wireless radio, the same thing found in the Nest ( thermostat. The Nexus Q is well positioned to be the central device in home automation, especially with the ability to create a mesh network with other Q’s in the house. It may be a stretch, but I suspect Google I/O 2013 is going to feature a presentation where the Nexus Q will start a movie, turn down the lights, tell all of the phones within range that they should switch to vibrate, and change everybody’s status to Busy. The Google@Home project has always had a, ‘sky's the limit’ quality to it; we're really just waiting for the launch

To Sum Up
Frankly, I wouldn’t buy a Nexus Q today; it’s a bad product with little value and a pretty high price. It was released 6 - 12 months too early, just so Google could say they did it first. I’m sure Google would have liked to keep this under wraps until it was ready, but competition can force companies to rush a product out the door. However, by the end of next summer, I suspect Google will have trouble meeting demand for this exact same device. The product we see today is Google’s way of saying, “look over here, it’s cool and soon we’ll show you why”. Google has a plan for all of the power hidden in that little black ball, and with the right software it can become a highly disruptive force.
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