The promise of the smart home is a world of appliances that anticipate your needs and do exactly what you want them to at the touch of a button, but that vision devolves into chaos when none of those devices can actually talk to each other. That's more or less the state of the smart home today, but now Google is trying to offer a solution.
Google sees possibilities "well beyond" the smart home
At Google I/O this afternoon, Google announced two pieces of software for the smart home and the broader collection of connected devices around us, increasingly known as the internet of things. Those two pieces are Brillo, an operating system, and Weave, a common language for devices to talk to one another. And importantly, Weave doesn't have to run on Brillo — so appliance manufacturers can theoretically add it on to their existing products.
With Weave, Google is creating a "common language" that devices can use to talk about things like locking a door, taking a photo, or measuring moisture. Google will keep adding more functions as it thinks of them, and developers will be able to submit their own functions, which Google will vet and potentially add in. Weave devices are even required to go through a certification program to ensure that they work properly.
But Google's ambitions go beyond the home, says Sundar Pichai, Google's head of Android. "You can imagine a farmer managing the entire farm from a smartphone, the security cameras, the sensors, the irrigation equipment. All of them can be connected so that it works better together." An entire city's transportation system could be connected through an internet of things language too, he says, connecting information like free parking spaces, public transit, and traffic information to create a better experience for residents and commuters.
Google is trying to entrench itself in the internet of things through Brillo, a stripped down version of Android that can run on a wide range of devices. It has only "the real core essentials," Pichai says, which allows it to run on low-power devices that can't handle the full version of Android. Essentially, Google wants to make sure that anything and everything is capable of running its operating system. Google is no longer just vying for your smartphones — it's vying for your washing machine, your fridge, your door lock, and eventually your city's parking meters and security cameras.
A version of Android that can run on almost anything
It's a hugely ambitious attempt by Google to insert itself as the operating system for the internet of things, though it may be restricted to relatively powerful devices for now. "I think Google realized there were classes of devices that were close to having the resources that an Android device needed," Shane Dyer, president of the IoT platform Arrayent, tells The Verge. "But as Android grew larger and larger, there were devices that they'd like to get to and perhaps serve that were kind of one notch below." Routers and set-top boxes might fall into that category, he says.
Though Google may talk about being in smart locks and light bulbs, it's not clear how many will actually be capable of running Brillo. According to a report from The Information last week, Brillo is targeting devices with around 32 MB or 64 MB of RAM. "Most of the devices that Arrayant services, whether these are Whirlpool appliances or lighting products or thermostat providers, generally a lot of those are far lower resource than even something like Brillo will support," Dyer says.
Still, Brillo could speed up the development of the devices that are capable of running it. And if more and more devices begin being built with Brillo, they'll already be speaking the same language.
Brillo could go a long way toward unifying the internet of things
That's also what gives Google a possible advantage over Apple in the smart home space. Google is making a platform for other companies to build hardware on top of — Apple is just letting companies connect their hardware to its own. So while Apple may foster a vibrant ecosystem of accessories, Google is trying to create the operating system that some of those accessories actually run.
Even if Google doesn't become the foundation of the internet of things, getting Brillo on even a fraction of the devices that Android is on would still go a long way toward unifying the ecosystem. That would be a big improvement over its messy state today.