Buried somewhat quietly in the noise of Google's spate of announcements today was an interesting fact: the Nexus Q, Google's new media streamer and first self-built consumer hardware, is being manufactured in the United States. In fact, Google didn’t talk about it on stage at all, but had stories in The New York Times and Wired timed with the announcement of the product. Google isn't providing many details about the manufacture of the devices, which isn't surprising, but we do know they're being made in San Jose, California. The price for a "made in the USA" streamer? $300.
Though electronics manufacturing has been somewhat a hot topic since most of the jobs went overseas, the concern hit a high point recently following serious allegations about labor practices at factories such as Foxconn, which does manufacturing for most of the big names in gadgets. With increased scrutiny and transparency has come the knowledge that our laptops and cellphones are made by people who make less than $400 a month. That conversation, in technology, at least, has led to discussions about if it's even possible for manufacturing to return to the USA, and debate over what the cost increases would be, with estimates varying wildly. Less than a month ago Apple CEO Tim Cook said he hoped that "someday" Apple would be able to return to doing some manufacturing in the US.
But Google is doing it now. That fact is significant, given the ethical debates in manufacturing and the economics of lost American jobs. There are a few questions that haven't been answered yet, however. The first is "why?" After all, Google could have easily done what literally every other company does, manufacture outside the US, and no one would have questioned it. Andy Rubin told the New York Times that essentially, it's an experiment that the company figured it would simply try out:
Google is doing it now
"We’ve been absent for so long, we decided why don’t we try it and see what happens?" In a company like Google, which seems fairly agile and adaptable, that reasoning makes sense if they could just give it a shot, why not? The Times article also noted that Google stressed the advantage of having design and engineering facilities in such close proximity to one another. The timing ("why now?"), however, suggests that an ulterior, secondary motive could be to irritate Apple — a company it has strained relations with, to say the least — by getting there first.
The second question is "why this product?" The Nexus Q seems like a product Google may not sell that many of — it fulfills a very limited and specific function, so by one perspective, the huge step of making a product in the USA is being wasted on niche goods. It actually seems likely, however, that the experimental, niche nature of the product, with its companion expectation of much lower sales than say, a smartphone, lowers the bar just far enough that the company was willing to take a chance and see what happens. Rubin also told The New York Times that Google isn't "starting a crusade" but the gesture, symbolic though it might be, is very important, and could, in the right circumstances, set a tone for the entire industry. And Google, which will have been there first, deserves to be commended for making the effort, and taking notice of the fact that many people do in fact care where their stuff comes from, and how it is made.
That'll cost you
Of course, that'll cost you. The Nexus Q is $300, and much of that price is from the increased labor costs of not making it in China. Google said it hoped that people would be willing to pay more, but also that costs would probably come down as volume increased. If you spend a moment (just one!) perusing Twitter or Facebook today, you’ll notice that many, many people are already complaining about that price tag. The reality is of course that we can’t have it both ways — electronics are cheap exactly because of those ethical issues (low wages, long hours, terrible living conditions, lax environmental policies) that so many of us have thought, read, written, or complained about. There are other, cheaper, similar options — made by Apple and Roku, for instance, and it’s clear that Google is "saying something" with this move, and even if it says it’s not making a big deal out of it, the two well-timed, long features in Wired and The New York Times about the Q’s manufacture tell another story. Google is proud of itself for manufacturing the Nexus Q in the United States. And it should be.
Will Google build a phone in the US?
It's not yet clear how far Google believes it can take this experiment; if it's successful with the Q, will it try to build a phone in the US? Regardless, the manufacturing debate just got a lot more interesting.
We’ve contacted Google for comment on a few questions and will update once we receive their responses.