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Google OnHub’s Biggest Challenge: Making The Wireless Router Loveable

The tasteful new router could be the gateway to a smarter home, but only if people start caring about routers in the first place.

In the mind of IDC analyst Jonathan Gaw, replacing a wireless router is kind of like getting a root canal.

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Even if there was a way to make the procedure more tolerable, you’re probably not going to volunteer unless you really need it. “Until I have some serious dental issues, I’m not going back, even if you promised me it’s painless,” Gaw says.

Google’s new OnHub router

Gaw is explaining some of the obstacles Google faces in reinventing the wireless router with OnHub, a $200 device that starts shipping later this month. OnHub’s cylindrical design doesn’t resemble a typical router, and that’s the point; it’s supposed to sit in the open, where its circular pattern of 13 antennas can sniff out congestion and deliver the best signal to dozens of devices. Google also promises a hassle-free setup, conducted entirely through a companion smartphone app.

OnHub might not be so intriguing if all it was ever going to be was a more pleasant router. But the quantity of radios, storage, and memory that Google has also packed into OnHub hints at much greater ambitions. While it may be a just a router right now, it could eventually serve as the switchboard for the connected homes of the future.

Still, none of that can happen unless the perception of wireless routers rises above mere tolerance. For Google to succeed, it must take on the unenviable task of convincing people that home networking is priceless. Gaw puts the challenge bluntly: “Nobody gives a crap about their router.”

Expensive Router, Stingy Market

The best way to quantify consumer sentiment toward wireless routers is to look at how often people upgrade and what they’re willing to pay. Unfortunately for Google, the market isn’t exactly fertile ground right now.

The OnHub smartphone app

According to IDC, the average consumer spent $101 on an 802.11ac router in the first quarter of this year, about half what Google is asking. If you count all routers, and not just the latest 801.11ac standard, the average selling price falls to just $59.

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“At $199, it’s hard, because it’s not an impulse buy,” Gaw says. “Not only is it not an impulse buy, it’s an expensive buy to replace something that, chances are, is working okay for me, and that I would actually have to do work to install, no matter how easy Google promises it is.”

Even router maker D-Link acknowledges that replacing a router isn’t a high priority for most customers. Dan Kelley, D-Link’s vice president of marketing, says customers typically wait nearly five years to upgrade, though the upgrade cycle may be closer to three years for early adopters. That jibes with a 2014 IDC survey that found the average age of a router to be about three years old in U.S. homes.

“It’s not the device that you want to rush out and replace on a regular basis–at least the general consumer doesn’t–because if it’s working, you don’t want to mess with it,” Kelley says.

And keep in mind, this only includes homes that aren’t leasing a router from their Internet service providers, some of which make it difficult for subscribers to swap in their own device.

Redefining The Router

The good news is that the router-buying public may be starting to demand better than a bargain-basement router, especially as they connect a greater number of PCs, phones, tablets, smart TVs, and smart-home products to their network.

While D-Link’s Kelley notes that the $50 router market isn’t going anywhere, the company is seeing a “healthy growth clip” for its high-end business. In June, 58% of D-Link’s 802.11ac routers offered speeds of at least 1700 Mbps (1300 Mbps on one band, 450 Mbps on the other), with an average selling price of $186 among those faster models.

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“The biggest demand that we’re seeing is in the high-end market where customers are looking for–I wouldn’t say future-proofing–but certainly a very powerful router that they can bring in and support this whole host of new devices,” Kelley says.

Securifi’s Almond routers

Securifi is seeing a similar trend emerge with its touchscreen Almond routers, which range from $90 to $250. While sales of Securifi’s $250 Almond+ router are “much, much smaller” than the cheaper models, CEO Rammohan Malasani says the balance is slowly starting to shift. “People have so many Wi-Fi devices, and they want to make sure they have the best router,” he says.

Malasani has also seen a surprising amount of customers purchasing Almond as a network extender, with its built-in touch screen allowing for easy setup. OnHub, which uses an inaudible tone to find nearby iOS or Android devices for setup, could in theory be just as seamless. “Talking to customers, we realized this was a very interesting use case,” Malasani says. “Extenders typically used to be really, really difficult to set up if you don’t have a screen.”

If the router market is trending toward higher prices and even multiple access points, Google may be ahead of the curve. It just needs to convince people that its clever hardware design and user-friendly software offer more than the pure speeds and feeds that other high-end routers offer.

Whose House Is This?

Assuming Google can break into the router business, it’s unlikely the search giant will be satisfied with merely serving up Wi-Fi connections. The bigger goal–and the reason OnHub includes radios to support Bluetooth Smart, Thread, and ZigBee–is for Google to establish itself as a connected-home gatekeeper. If you’re already using OnHub’s app to manage Wi-Fi devices, why not turn it into the main interface for your connected lightbulbs, door locks, and thermostats?

Wink CTO Nathan Smith thinks this strategy makes sense in theory, and Wink–which offers a service that ties together numerous smart-home products through a single app–has been talking to router makers about doing something similar. “I think that one of the toughest things about getting into connected products is provisioning those products and getting online for the first time,” Smith says. “I think when you bring the router into that equation…you can have things like push-button provisioning that are really useful to consumers.”

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The big question–and the one that most worries Smith–is whether Google will treat all these devices and connections equally. With Wi-Fi, after all, you never have to worry about whether your new phone or tablet is compatible with the router you bought a few years ago. The situation becomes much more complicated once you start tying in various smart-home products, each with their own app platforms and communication protocols. Smith fears that Google will somehow give preferential treatment to its own Brillo platform and Weave protocol. (It’s worth noting that OnHub doesn’t support Z-Wave, which enjoys wide adoption among current smart home devices.) The risk is that you still end up with a handful of disparate apps and hubs to do your bidding.

“Although Google might like–because of their size–to make Weave the dominant protocol, it’s just not a reality,” Smith says. “This is not a VHS/Betamax situation where we can come up with some simple encoding and decoding technology that everyone can use. This is a much more complex situation because you’re talking about products that are evolving over time.”

Smith prefers the approach of Amazon and its Echo connected speaker, which adds a set of voice commands to various smart-home products and hubs (including Wink) over Wi-Fi. Essentially, Amazon is letting everyone else sort out the ongoing smart-home standards war, while providing a layer of extra services on top.

Google’s strategy is much riskier, but the payoff would be a router that truly feels like the backbone of a futuristic connected home. And if it fails? Well, it might feel like pulling teeth.

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About the author

Jared Newman covers apps and technology for Fast Company from his remote outpost in Cincinnati. He also writes for PCWorld and TechHive, and previously wrote for Time.com.

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