Six years ago, Mario Queiroz, a VP of product management at Google, stood onstage at the company’s Mountain View headquarters holding the first hardware device bearing the company’s name. He called it a "superphone."
The Nexus One, primitive now, was a cutting-edge Android device then. It was Google’s first attempt to model its ideal smartphone — and its move to stop Apple from running away with the new market. Queiroz ran sales, a crucial part.
Sales never came. Google wanted to sell it directly online, unlocked to any carrier, but neither the carriers nor consumers cooperated. Google shut its online sales six months after launch, and Queiroz never held another Android phone onstage.
But he didn’t stop hoisting Google hardware in public.
His redemption came from Chromecast. Queiroz was the co-creator and driving force behind the media streaming dongle, which has, in just three years, become the company’s best-selling device and a cornerstone of its hardware strategy. Now he’s also in charge of a device even more critical to Google’s future.
At Google’s developer conference in May, the 50 year old, dressed in a tight black T-shirt and jeans, unveiled his latest hardware creation: Google Home, a speaker that streams music and summons a conversational, robotic assistant with a voice command ("Okay, Google"). It sits within his portfolio of "Living Room" products that Google is relying on to insert itself into our everyday interactions with technology in the home, fending off strong advances from archrivals.
Because like the Nexus One in its category, Home wasn’t first, either. It operates much like Amazon’s Echo, which arrived in the fall of 2014 and has done surprisingly well in the early adopter world of tech-obsessives. It has sold an estimated three million units and reportedly plans to ship 10 million more next year, turning the device into a $1 billion business.
The market shifts from these devices could be even bigger. What Echo proved is that people engage with internet services at home without a screen. And that transition, to a world of voice interactions and artificial intelligence, could prove more seismic than the turn from desktop computers to mobile phones.
Google’s biggest worry about this world is its irrelevance. Echo doesn’t need Google. It goes straight for Google’s jugular — its proudest characteristic, machine intelligence, and its core business. People talk to the Echo; they ask it about the weather or baking ingredients; they look up things to buy. They search with it.
Resting on Queiroz’s shoulders now is pressure to ship a product that competes with rivals and prove his success with Chromecast isn’t a fluke.
When asked about the Echo, Queiroz cited his CEO, Sundar Pichai, who credited Amazon for blazing the trail when Google introduced Home in May.
"Amazon has done a good job of establishing the category," Queiroz told me during an interview at Google’s headquarters. "But if you think about [when] Apple TV and Roku came out, they were establishing a category — but that category has probably more than doubled in size since Chromecast came to market."
"Think about the number of homes and rooms that there are just in this country. And elsewhere."
The path to Chromecast
In some ways, Queiroz is an unusual pick to lead Home. He’s not known as an engineering savant nor a design guru like Tony Fadell, the iPod creator who recently departed from Nest, the smart-home company he sold to Google.
That could be intentional.
People who have worked with Queiroz laud him as a competent, effective and even-keeled manager. "He’s an operator. He gets shit done," said Daniel Conrad, CEO of wireless startup Beep Networks, who worked with Queiroz on Android.
Another former Googler called Queiroz a "swiss Army knife — he can do anything."
He’s shaped like one, too. Sinewy and impossibly fit, he gets up at 4:30 every morning to work out. He plays soccer. When we met last week, he was obsessively following the Copa América games, even though his native Brazil was ousted.
Queiroz moved from Brazil to St. Louis, Mo., as a child. (His father worked for Monsanto.) In 1984, like many Googlers, he went to Stanford to study engineering. His first job was with HP, where he climbed the ranks to become VP of global operations, overseeing hardware development for its servers. When he came to Google, in 2005, it was for a very HP-like role: Building the company’s internal IT systems.
But his career there really began when he went to Europe to work on its international product expansion under sales exec Nikesh Arora. Queiroz returned to Google in 2009 and was asked to work with another luminary exec, Android founder Andy Rubin.
Queiroz described his role on Nexus One to me as a "temporary assignment." Yet people who worked on the team then told me the intent was more permanent. Queiroz was expected to serve as Rubin’s operating chief, these sources said. But after the Nexus One launch, Queiroz moved away from the team — he was "sidelined," as one source put it, largely due to a personality mismatch with the more cavalier engineers then at Android. (Sources at Google said he left voluntarily after the Google TV unit asked for someone with his experience.)
Queiroz jumped to another experimental project at the company, then rife with them. Google TV was an early effort to port the internet onto televisions.
Too early. The product never took with manufacturing partners or users. "We were starting to build an ecosystem, but we weren’t seeing the consumer adoption," Queiroz said. So he and few engineers from the team began tinkering with an idea on the "opposite extreme, in terms of simplicity," he explained.
People weren’t used to smart TVs. But they were used to their smartphones. Why not port the phone to the TV?
That was the idea behind Chromecast. Other streaming devices existed, but Google undercut them, entering in the summer of 2013 with a physical design and price ($35) simpler and smaller than competitors.
Research firm IHS estimated that, last quarter, Chromecast overtook Apple TV as the best-selling device in the market. (Google doesn’t share quarterly device shipments or revenue.) In May, Google said it had sold 25 million units since launch, a number that surpassed industry expectations — and the expectations of many people who initially worked on Chromecast.
"The pace and the quality and the way that they’re delivering hardware is really, really impressive," said Conrad.
Queiroz credits the success with having a separate profit-and-loss line for his team, something many Google experimental units lack. He also pointed to his constrained hardware costs, which he said helps "focus your engineering team" — a lesson from his HP days. Chromecast launched with just four apps — YouTube, Google Play, Pandora and Netflix — just in the U.S. Eighteen months later, the device supported over one thousand apps in 30-plus countries and was sold in over 35,000 storefronts.
When people say Google is bad at hardware, its defenders counter: Look at Chromecast.
Queiroz is well respected inside Google for that feat. People also compliment his staid managerial presence: He speaks evenly, holding steady eye contact, and lacks the eccentricities of other Google execs. Hugo Barra, VP for Chinese phonemaker Xiaomi and a former Googler hired by Queiroz, recalled how Queiroz would chastise him for walking too quickly and constantly looking rushed.
"In the end," Barra wrote in an email, "it was really Mario’s insistent focus on a single product use case" — letting your phone ‘cast’ video — "and discipline that got Chromecast to market faster and in larger scale than any hardware product Google has shipped."
Also, Queiroz had a powerful sponsor: Salar Kamangar, then chief of YouTube, which oversaw Google TV. Kamangar, a longtime (and still) consigliere of Alphabet boss and former Google CEO Larry Page, approved of the skunkworks product. That likely helped the small Chromecast team get their invention before Page and co-founder Sergey Brin.
Queiroz recalled the review. "They saw this as a seed for access points in the home, where Google could bring services," he said. "They were thinking a couple of steps ahead."
Those steps were a whole series of domestic devices. Last fall, Google introduced Chromecast Audio, a modified version of the dongle that plugs into speakers, instantly enabling music streaming. "Now we have Google Home," Queiroz said.
A test for Google’s model
If Home has a purpose, it is to plant the seed of Google’s artificial intelligence.
Unmasked in May, Google’s "assistant" fuses its deep search database with deeply personalized intelligence. The pitch: It can tell you anything you ask and know everything about you, if you let it.
How that exactly works is unclear. Google has only released a short promotional video for the product, which the company said is arriving "later this year."
Yet Google sees the assistant — it's equivalent of Amazon's Alexa and Apple's Siri — as the next big evolutionary step for search, its foundational product.
Recent advances in research and data processing mean voice may soon be a widespread computing interface, which is why Google, Amazon, Apple and others are racing to perfect and own it. Google’s plan is to send its version everywhere. The starting vehicles for its assistant are Home and new messaging app Allo.
A small cylinder, sliced in half diagonally, the speaker has a gray bottom and a smooth white top with warm blinking lights. The internet has compared it to an air freshener and a Yankee candle. Yet it’s clean and unassuming — noteworthy given that it comes from the company that gave us Google Glass.
"We didn’t want it to look like a tech gadget," Queiroz told me. "We wanted it to look like something you might put in your kitchen or your bedroom."
When did Google start talking about Home?
"Well, I guess, the assistant — Google started talking about that seventeen years ago."
We laughed. It was a dodge, but not a lie: Page and Brin have always talked about Google as eventually becoming a ubiquitous, ambient source of knowledge. A voice in your head.
But when did Queiroz’s team start on the actual speaker? Amazon released the Echo in November of 2014. Google showed us Home in May yet said it, like the assistant, is coming "later this year."
"You could also say," Queiroz answered, "we started working on Google Home when we started working on Chromecast because we’ve really had this evolution of ideas and technology."
So no exact date. Sources familiar with the company said Home was born conceptually alongside Chromecast Audio, which uses similar speaker technology. But Google clearly didn’t get its version out before Echo landed. (Queiroz wouldn’t address Echo by name; he called it the "existing product that’s in the market.")
"The teeth-gnashing was pretty noticeable when that first came out," said a former Googler. "This is something we should have built."
Exact timing might not matter — the market for voice-controlled home hardware is embryonic. And the timing is less important than the ways Home will test Google’s modus operandi.
Company executives speak frequently of its devotion to a "horizontal" model — it will partner with anyone, everywhere, so Google’s services spread far and wide. Its rivals lean toward the vertical; they handpick partners and control as much of the hardware and software as possible.
Apple hasn’t released a rival voice-speaker, although a report in The Information says it might; if it does, it’s a safe bet that it will not be easily compatible with Google. (If you ask a theoretical Apple device to play music, it would probably default to Apple Music rather than YouTube or Google Play. Right now, Siri uses Microsoft’s Bing for search results.)
Amazon’s Echo probably won’t be either. But it is opening up to a flurry of third-party developers, something Queiroz said Home will do.
Some posit that Google moved slowly because it was worried consumers would balk at privacy concerns. Are you okay with tech companies listening to you in your house? Once Amazon proved that, yes, people are okay with that, Google moved in.
A disheveled organizational structure is another, perhaps more plausible explanation. For years, Google didn’t have a definitive hardware group. The company took steps to fix that in April, bringing in former Motorola executive Rick Osterloh to run a new hardware unit. Queiroz works there, running the Chromecast devices (managed by Rishi Chandra, a well-liked product lead), Home and OnHub, a wireless router.
By handing Home to Queiroz, Google is rewarding his success in edging Chromecast past Apple and Amazon. It’s also tacitly endorsing his strategy of going cheap and simple. Google hasn’t put a price tag on Home, but don’t be surprised if it follows Chromecast’s playbook and comes out below Amazon.
"I don’t think there’s anything that fundamentally prevents Google from being a great hardware company," Queiroz told me. "It just took a focused team, separating itself, maybe, from the day-to-day software work that was going on."
One thing that might slow its progress, however, is Amazon.
In the fall, the e-commerce behemoth removed Chromecast and Apple TV — which both compete with its Fire TV product — from its online store, potentially a key distribution channel. At our Code Conference last month, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos avoided providing a direct answer why; he said the devices didn’t meet "acceptable business terms."
Translation: They aren’t compatible with Amazon’s video product.
Queiroz would not say how much it has hit Chromecast sales, but it’s fair to assume, given the importance of Amazon sales to electronics, it did so adversely. Returning to the store doesn’t appear to be Google’s call. Queiroz said Google is very open to letting Chromecast stream Amazon video, but Amazon hasn’t caved on its decision that handicaps its rivals.
When I asked about the Amazon removal, Queiroz tensed up a bit. He considered his words. "We want to sell this product everywhere," he replied.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.
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