It’s no secret that Google has come a long way since Larry Page and Sergey Brin built their first server in a Lego case . The company has evolved from search and ads to email, mobile phones, and a stable of product offerings and research initiatives in its continuing mission to organize the world’s information. While software could take the company very far, hardware efforts, in addition to those solely for internal use, like servers, have recently gained more focus. The physical world is the next domain for Google to explore: Nexus phones and tablets, Chromebooks , set-top boxes running GoogleTV (encouraged though not built by Google), Glass, fiber optic cable, and of course, self-driving cars.
It is possible to imagine a life fully contained with the Googleverse. Or at the very least, constantly connected to the Mountain View company via an array of intelligent devices. But what if Google decided to take their grand experiments one step further. What if Google built a city?
Anyone who grew up playing Sim City fondly remembers the arcologies – stand-alone “cities within a city” – but this isn’t what I have in mind. Not a closed off Googleverse, but a town built from the ground (or fiber) up. A testbed for Google operations and a home for those who want to live on the cutting edge. My model is Celebration, Florida , a town originally developed by Disney.
Celebration is a planned city. Rather than growing organically as people move to an area, a planned city is designed and built and then the city exists, fully formed. While Disney did not continue to run the entire project, divesting itself of most operations after Celebration “opened” it had a hand in the design and creation which has lasted past the period of formal operating authority.
A Google city would start with the newest publicly available Google product: Google Fiber . Fiber is one of Google’s most ambitious products yet, and, given the company’s history, that’s saying something. At its heart, Fiber is nothing more than Google acting as an ISP, but when an ISP can offer speeds of 700 Mbps for just $70 dollars a month, it’s an ISP making history. The first cities to be blessed with the assault on the cable companies were Kansas City, Kansas and Kansas City, Missouri, with neighboring cities in the area on the shortlist for coverage. And Eric Schmidt says there will be more to come.
Unsurprisingly, this has made some entrepreneurs think “Why not Kansas City?” as they look for places to found and grow businesses, particularly internet startups that can take advantage of a resource not available in many other places in North America. Kansas City (either) may not be Silicon Valley, but getting in on the ground floor for Google Fiber could give the region a boost while we wait to see just how interested Google really is in laying cable. At the very least Google Fiber is an interesting hook: a hacker house wired up with Fiber is on airbnb.
More than just providing internet access and television channels, Google is changing the way their customers interact with the living room by including a Nexus 7 as the remote control, the ability to record up to eight shows at a time, and a combined three terabytes of storage – two locally for your content, one in the cloud for Google Drive and the services (formerly Google Docs) contained in that.
And who wouldn’t want to jump ship to a Google-run wireless carrier ? Consumer Reports just ranked AT&T the worst of the big boys, but first place Verizon is not without it’s faults: blocking Google Wallet and pushing out software updates slowly . Working with Dish could provide over the air access to match Google’s terrestrial infrastructure. Though a complete rollout of cellular services would likely be several years in the making, just as with the Kansas City fiber project, even a small scale cellular service would be a shot across the bow at both AT&T and Verizon.
In a Google city, you may not need a car. At least, not as you currently do. Moving to Google, USA could mean subscribing to the Google Car service, built on Google’s self-driving car project. Think of this as ZipCar on steroids. As part of local taxes/fees etc. residents would pay into a car sharing service. Getting a car to drive to your location would be as simple as opening an app similar to Uber or Hailo. These vehicles might resemble pods more than sedans (think the pods on the villain’s island in The Incredibles) because the purpose would be transportation more than “driving.” Just use your trusty mobile phone or tablet to summon a pod and one will arrive to pick you up, drop you off at your destination, and pick you up later on. Maybe it could swing by the laundromat, your Amazon (or Google) locker, or a pizza place on the way and do some of your errands too.
Maybe everyone would bring their own car (or just purchase a private pod) that could be outfitted with self-drive, but there is opportunity for a unique public transit system powered by the self-driving car technology. Anyone who owns a self-driving car would have much the same experience as the transit method and those who own a “traditional” car would still be able to take advantage of the transit system.
Eye on Life
The gadget that really ties this futuristic city together may not be the cars, bandwidth, or omnipresent internet connectivity, but Google Glass . Ideally, Glass will be drawing on the voice recognition and suggestion capabilities of Google Now, location information from Google Maps, object (and facial?) recognition to identify places and things within your field of vision, and a host of other Google services. Right now, much of what Glass will be capable of if it finds its way into the hands of consumers in the not-too-distant-future (2014? 2015?) is a mystery. If it can provide a quarter of the functionality of the concept video , there’s no telling what kind of impact smart glasses could have on society.
City on the Edge of Forever
With a reputation for undertaking projects well outside the box, Google City may not be as improbable as it sounds, but give the Googlers a few more years and every city may end up looking like Google City anyway. Unlike the Segway, cities may actually be redesigned: roads can be altered for self-driving cars, and billboards can be physically removed to be displayed virtually to those wearing smart glasses.