Google Sets Sights on Smart Cities

Jun 16, 2015

Google Wades into the Smart City Marketplace

On June 10th, Google announced a new initiative titled Sidewalk Labs, dubbed an “urban innovation company”, led by the former Deputy Mayor of Economic Development and Rebuilding for the City of New York. This marks Google’s first foray of this type into urban computing, with the company promising to explore “ubiquitous connectivity, the internet of things, dynamic resource management and flexible buildings and infrastructure.” This initiative focuses on improving urban environments, an area left largely untouched by one of Google’s main competitors, Apple. While Apple has revealed significant innovations in the fields of individual health and private residences, it has yet to formally launch a product suite aimed at augmenting, improving, or streamlining urban environments.

A Different Focus

By focusing instead on transportation, energy usage, and government efficiency, Google’s new technology and its related strategy diverges from Apple’s. Outside of their flagship iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch, Apple has been and remains reluctant to engage in manufacturing smart devices, preferring instead to partner with brands already active in the fields such as Philips or General Electric. At this point, the extent to which Google’s Sidewalk will be involved in manufacturing physical devices is unclear. Samsung, a long-time Google partner, has already launched a full suite of smart appliances, including refrigerators, washing machines and televisions. It may be challenging and therefore unlikely that Sidewalk will seek to steal market share from Samsung, as the company has indicated that it prefers to occupy the space “between civic hackers and traditional big technology companies.”

To accomplish this, Sidewalk promises to avoid the “top-down” approach where large companies seek to embed themselves in a city’s infrastructure, and would instead aim to provide a platform that “people can plug into.” This language conjures images of a fully networked city, with hotspots providing context-sensitive services to citizens. These images, however, raise two problems that Sidewalk must address if it is to succeed.

Hurdles to Overcome

Firstly, the services offered must be sufficiently distinguished not only from competing services already on the market, but from Google’s own offerings as well. Planning the most efficient trip on public transit, for example, can already be accomplished rather effortlessly using Google’s existing software suite. Furthermore, how will these services interact with existing applications that provide similar services? Will there be an integration of different network protocols, as is the case with some open-source networks, or will this be a protocol designed specifically for Sidewalk services? Details have been left deliberately vague, so we will monitor this challenge as more information becomes available.

The other problem raised by the image of a networked city with hotspots providing services to citizens is access. How will Google and Sidewalk manage the significant undertaking of networking a city in order to provide civic services? Industry giants such as IBM, Microsoft and Cisco have already developed technologies that improve the efficiency of service delivery in modern cities. It is easy to say that the plan is to avoid a “top down” model, but to what extent will it truly be possible to avoid overlap with existing technological infrastructure? Furthermore, Sidewalk’s ability to access network hardware remains unclear. Will they seek to partner with major ISPs such as AT&T or Comcast to provide their service? Given the history of partnership that companies such as AT&T share with Sidewalk’s competition, accessing networks may pose a challenge as Sidewalk begins to reveal its product offerings.

Fiber-Enabled Municipalities a Possible Testing Ground

That said, Sidewalk still boasts the backing of the massive financial and technological might of Google, and it may therefore be possible to resolve each of the aforementioned issues. Fiber, Google’s lower-cost, ultra-fast connection, is as of now only active in a handful of disparate municipalities. As Fiber continues to expand, however, Google will be well-positioned to act as both an ISP and an innovator in the field of smart city technologies.  And if Google is successful in expanding Fiber beyond its currently limited scope, this vertical integration will provide Sidewalk with a competitive advantage as cities continue their inevitable march towards ambient intelligence and smart environments. Sidewalk offers Google the opportunity to tangibly demonstrate to potential buyers its vision for the future of smart cities in municipalities currently using its ultra-fast proprietary connection.

It would not be surprising to see Sidewalk begin to roll out its service package in cities such as Austin or Kansas City, where Fiber has successfully been implemented. If Google is able to demonstrate real innovation and success in streamlining transportation and other municipal services, it stands a far better chance of catching the attention of higher density municipalities in the US and across the globe. Stay tuned for further updates as more information regarding this new urban innovation venture becomes available.

Jason Reed

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