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Thermostats, robots, and the perfect world map: 12 months of Google acquisitions

Google has fingers in a whole lot of pies, but how many of them are going to deliver a tasty treat? We take a look at all the major investments and acquisitions that Google has made over the last year and delve into the potential implications.
April 4, 2014
google logo (2)

It’s easy to forget that Google is primarily an advertising company. It has figured how to monetize web traffic more effectively than anyone else. Growing beyond search, a lot of Google services are about securing eyeballs, so a business model where the service is ostensibly free can work for Google. We’ve all heard the explanation “if you’re not paying, you’re the product”.

The idea that Google might move beyond dipping a toe in the water of device manufacture with the Nexus line has been dealt a severe blow after Mountain View made the decision to offload Motorola Mobility to Lenovo, but there have been a lot of other acquisitions over the past year. In addition, Google Ventures has been showering money on interesting start-ups and Google Capital is backing more mature companies. Is this all part of some master plan, or just a determination to drive new technology forward?

We thought we’d take a look at the most interesting Google acquisitions and investments from the last year and try to work out what they might mean for the future.

Nest – Home Automation

nest thermostat

The biggest purchase of the year, costing Google $3.2 billion, was undoubtedly Nest Labs. The company currently makes an intelligent thermostat which is supposed to learn about your temperature preferences and control your system to keep the temperature optimum and potentially save you money on bills. There’s also a smoke and carbon monoxide alarm. Both devices have built-in Wi-Fi and can be remotely accessed using an Android or iOS app.

With Motorola out of the picture, Nest is said to be Google’s core hardware team, and the company is reportedly ready to spend big to back it. We fully expect Nest to push forward with more products and it could be Google’s route into home automation, which has been frustratingly slow to develop. The potential value of the data that Google will be able gather by linking together devices in your home and learning about how you use them is enormous. The implications could stretch well beyond individual homes, and even anonymized data will deliver untold insights.

For us, the potential is a home automation system that allows us to remote control all sorts of aspects of our home, gain a greater understanding of how we currently use them, and get help to use them more efficiently and save money on power bills. Imagine all the extra data from your home feeding into a system like Google Now. Could we be approaching a point where the heating turns on ten minutes before you get home, the lights come on as you walk through the door, and the TV powers up to your favorite channel?

Boston Dynamics – Commercial Robots

boston dynamics big dog

The acquisition of Boston Dynamics hit the headlines alongside videos of animal-inspired running robots. In actual fact, Google has bought a number of robotics companies in the last year including the Japanese winners of DARPA’s Robotics Challenge Trial, Schaft Inc, who created a bipedal robot that can climb ladders. Google has also acquired Industrial Perception, Redwood Robotics, Meka Robotics, Holomini, and Bot & Dolly.

Andy Rubin is heading up the robotics effort at Google and he described it as a “moonshot”, claiming that we’re years away from seeing the first commercial robots. There’s been no word on what Google is specifically aiming to create in robotics, so we can only speculate. It’s still an incredibly exciting proposition that will have people either saving up for domestic chore-bot or building an underground bunker for the inevitable Skynet moment.

DeepMind – Artificial Intelligence

DeepMind Technologies logo

There are obvious potential benefits to Google’s main business if machine learning can deliver ever more powerful and accurate algorithms, so the acquisition of London-based AI company DeepMind wasn’t a surprise. Apparently Google beat Facebook to the punch on this deal and it could prove to be an important one.

A real breakthrough in AI would feed into everything else Google does, from Google Now and Android to web search, home automation, and robotics. A truly intelligent assistant we can talk to through our phones, wearables, household appliances, and cars could be incredibly useful.

Waze – World Map

Google Maps Waze

There’s no doubt that Google Maps is already an excellent product, but when Google acquired Waze it paved the way for even more nifty features. If you’ve never used Waze before, it’s a super-handy community-supported mapping app that benefits from real-time data on traffic and gas prices being constantly fed into the database by real people. You can save time by taking the right route to work, and make sure that you stop off at the cheapest gas station around on the way home.

Waze allows the community to report on updates to roads, traffic jams, accidents, police, and other assorted hazards that could impact on your trip. It’s an element that’s missing from Google Maps and it will undoubtedly strengthen it in the long term.

Other Acquisitions

There have been several other acquisitions over the last year:

  • Behavio – software that gathers sensor data on your phone and uses it to predict your behavior.
  • Wavii – offered a news aggregator app, but seems to have been acquired for its natural language research.
  • Makani Power – a company that develops airborne wind turbines.
  • Bump – the original file sharing app that allowed you to bump phones to share a file.
  • Flutter – a gesture recognition technology startup with an app to control things like iTunes using hand gestures.
  • FlexyCore – makers of DroidBooster which was designed to improve the performance of Android devices.
  • Autofuss, focused on advertising and design, and its sister company Bot & Dolly, maker of robots for Hollywood
  • Bitspin – designers of the excellent Timely alarm app.
  • Impermium – a security startup with expertise in spam control, fraud elimination, and dealing with abuse online.
  • SlickLogin – an authentication technology based on sound, looking to free us from passwords.
  • – a technology dedicated to preventing fraudulent ad clicks.
  • Green Throttle – a startup looking to turn Android devices into gaming consoles.

Other investments

Looking beyond actual acquisitions Google has also invested a great deal of money in all sorts of companies from SurveyMonkey to Uber. This isn’t done with a focus on what these companies can do for Google, but rather what Google can do for them, and not altruistically, we can safely assume it expects a decent return on at least some of these investments.

Pushing technology forward

There is some desire at the core of Google to just push interesting technology forward and a lot of cool things are being given a chance to get off the ground thanks to its largesse. However, the benefits for Google are potentially enormous. By backing a wide range of emerging technologies, Mountain View can keep an eye on what the next big thing might be, it doesn’t need every deal to pay off because the ones that do will pay off in style.

With so many interests it’s tough to say what the Google of the future will look like. Except to say that it will continue to pioneer new technology and it will be big.