Ihnatko: Google’s OnHub promising as a consumer product

SHARE Ihnatko: Google’s OnHub promising as a consumer product
SHARE Ihnatko: Google’s OnHub promising as a consumer product

Here we see the first difficulty of Google’s recent corporate restructuring. I’ve no idea who, technically, is making and selling the company’s new Wi-Fi router.

Well, whomever’s making the OnHub — it’s interesting.

I like how Google is presenting this thing. It might be the first router I’ve seen that’s emphatically being defined as a consumer product instead of as a piece of networking gear. Apple’s Airport base stations come close. The workers who dug the Panama Canal couldn’t help but contract yellow fever; similarly, a device can’t help but acquire Extreme Cool Syndrome as well as an antibiotic-resistant strain of Ease Of Use if it’s designed inside Apple.

But like so many others, Airports look like “friendly network devices” and the software we use to manage them carries that impression through. The experience of setting up and using the OnHub appears to be more like a Sonos or an Amazon Echo, based on the reviewer’s guide and other materials Google has made available.

“The network is on. Everything looks good. Nine devices are connected,” says the management app, which runs on your phone. How do they solve the classic problem of setting up a network device when there’s no network already in place? It’s got a speaker up top that can communicate with the app via ultrasonic sound, zero configuration necessary. Neat.

Oh, and about the Echo. Yeah, there’s an uncanny resemblance. OnHub is a column topped with a ring of LEDs that change color to keep you hip to what’s going on with your network.

Google says that its design is intended to improve Wi-Fi signal strength.

“Oh,” I think. “So the shape is defined by a series of vertical antennas arranged around the perimeter, like the whalebone in an old-timey corset.”

No, while it’s true that OnHub’s 12 antennas (six on each band) are arranged in a ring, Google is saying that its overall presence is actually sociological. Where did I install my Airport Extreme? It’s in my office, which is off at the perimeter of the house. I’ve got it on the top of a file cabinet, right up against a wall. It’s not an ugly device. But ultimately it can’t help but be a plain box with wires hanging off of it.

All of that gets in the way of a good radio signal. The OnHub’s pretty design (hopefully) encourages people to place it in the middle of a room where people hang out, without sheetrock and plaster muting the signal inches from the source.

Is this effective? Dunno. It looks lovely in the press photos but it’s not showing an ugly copper CAT6 cable snaking across the floor. Plus, makers of less-dramatic routers are familiar with these issues and compensate for them (sometimes with cool standards that actually “steer” the signal to where it needs to land). There’s no solution as simple as “have your antennas out in the open,” though. And maybe this design will allow OnHub to achieve housewide coverage without needing to amp up signal strength so high that the router is visible to other houses or apartments.

But I’m encouraged by this prominent sign that OnHub was designed by engineers who understand that they’re making something that’s going to be used by humans. Maybe that’s why the top is slightly domed. That certainly prevents someone from putting a vase or a book on top of it.

The other nice thing about an “out in the open” router is that ring of lights. “Mankind is born to suffer, just as surely as sparks fly upward,” so the Good Book (The Complete ‘Peanuts’, 1967-1968, Fantagraphics Books) tells us, and broadband issues are usually how the Universe tells you that you are not amongst its beloved creatures today. It’d be nice to have a clear, colored, omnidirectional status beacon, as easy to spot as a weather beacon on the top of the John Hancock Building in Boston, to signal what’s wrong when my stream of “Last Week Tonight” suddenly craps out.

Other design elements are intriguing. OnHub supports a pile of networking standards that aren’t mighty relevant right now. But it’s clearly been designed to work as a hub for network-controlled lights, door locks, appliances, and home security and safety devices.

It runs on dual-core IPQ8064 Qualcomm CPU that was designed for routers and other kinds of always-on network appliances, not much of a surprise there. But it also has 4 gigabytes of storage, which could be a lot for a device that only ever wants to be a router. Google will update the OnHub’s software regularly. Perhaps the storage is there to simplify package installation. It sure isn’t inconceivable that part of it could be used to cache streaming content.

The Wins And Worries Of A Google Logo

When I learned that Google was making its own router, two things came immediately to mind.

First, that Google’s the perfect kind of company to make this kind of product. They totally understand how bits move from a server alllll the way to an iPad and through all of the networking devices in between, and how each and every step of the process wants to make sure your YouTube stream goes haywire. They’ve been spending years developing apps and streaming services, so they also understand how, where, and why people use their Wi-Fi devices. Is there another company that’s so well-suited to making this whole process much faster, easier and more reliable?

Not only do they understand how networking works, but they also understand the importance of network security. Despite major faults recently disclosed about the security of Android devices, I have faith that the team behind OnHub will keep up a regular — and automated — series of security updates. When was the last time you looked for an update for your current router? Never, right? Because you have to look for them. And a router will continue to work fine without a security update, so you never check.

But then there’s that second first impression: As great as Google products are, one must never forget that Google makes its money by selling ads.

At this point in my life, I’ve heard “If you’re not the customer, you’re the product” said about Google so often that it barely even provokes an eye-roll anymore. I don’t go through life jumping at shadows, worried that Google is trying to steal my personal data, my babies, and that last pouch of Pop Tarts I was saving for dinner.

Nonetheless, I wouldn’t put a Google-branded device at such a downright lucrative spot on my network without knowing how it will affect my privacy.

I’m not paranoid about Google because for all of the faults in this kind of a relationship the company makes a serious effort to be transparent. Information about the data they can see and how they use it is usually easy to find, in non-technical English, for those people who care about the issue and who understand English. Other languages are also available.

Google has already posted a support document entitled “OnHub, the Google On app and your privacy.” I’m not worried about the privacy of the data that OnHub sees based on this line, thoughtfully pre-boldfaced by Google:

The information your OnHub and the Google On app collect helps us deliver the best Wi-Fi experience possible.Importantly, the Google On app and your OnHub do not track the websites you visit or collect the content of any traffic on your network. However, OnHub does collect data such as Wi-Fi channel, signal strength, and device types that are relevant to optimize your Wi-Fi performance. Google policies and terms of services apply as normal to any Google services you use (like Gmail or Google search), whether you’re using them on an OnHub network or not.

Which isn’t to say that an OnHub in hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses isn’t a huge win for Google. I believe them when they say they aren’t looking at my personal data. But even just the simple, day-to-day, hour-by-hour information about the performance of so many devices on so many kinds of broadband services provided by so many providers must represent a goldmine of data for Google. Do keep in mind that Google is expanding its home high-speed broadband service.

Another Beachhead Into Your Home

OnHub has got me wondering why other companies don’t get into the home router game. This hardware category has largely been passed over by the whole “let’s stop making computers and software into a hair-tearing nightmare of frustration” movement of the past 10 years. It’s ripe pickings for new players.

And it’s easy to see the opportunities to make home network appliances better. What if Roku decided to make a router?

They’d license an existing design rather than build it from sand. But then they’d fill it with all sorts of features that make it the very best router to use if you have a Roku streaming box hooked up to your TV. Imagine if Rokus could (with the owner’s consent, of course) have “golden child” status on the network, allowed to bully all other devices into conceding bandwidth.

Imagine a Sonos router that’s able to manage all of the proprietary Sonos streams in your house and enable them to work more intimately with other streaming services? Like, what if Sonos put a client app on the router that converted any other kind of incoming audio stream into something that your Sonos speakers could intuitively handle.

In fact, when I first laid eyes on OnHub, I wondered if its top-mounted speaker grille also concealed a working microphone. Maybe my thoughts were being influenced by OnHub’s similarity to Amazon Echo, but I was surprised that this thing doesn’t also double as a terminal for Google Now and its speech-powered assistant. I think the Echo is terrific; I’m asking it for information and music every day. Right now I’m thinking of that same sort of hardware and imagining it saying “Your meeting with Geoff Peterson is at 1 PM. You should leave in 30 minutes to take the 10:52 train to Boston” while I’m in the middle of cleaning the kitchen. I’m nodding enthusiastically despite the fact that these are words I’m writing as opposed to a feature that actually exists.

And then there’s the basic concept of having a computer in your house that’s always on and always available to other devices on the network. A device like OnHub, or an updated AppleTV, can amplify the utility of Apple and Google’s home automation and home media services.

I’m speculating. I also can’t help but note that Google chose to name their new Wi-Fi router “OnHub,” instead of “OnRoute” or something other name that implies a single narrow function.

Networking Without Floor Panels

I won’t know how well OnHub actually works until I get one to try out. Still, I hope it’s a sign that a new generation of engineers wants to make networking a lot easier. Older generations have resigned themselves to difficult hardware because they grew up thinking about a network as an IT service. Younger folks think of it as just part of what makes the TV and the game system and the other stuff in the house work better.

As things are now, the whole category is an anachronism. It’s a throwback to the days when attaching a printer involved downloading drivers and setting DIP switches on an interface card. It’s a nightmare.

That’s not what people expect today. They expect their PC to locate a printer anywhere inside the house and be able to print even before you’ve pulled all of the packing foam and tape out of the thing. Why aren’t routers that simple?

If I set up my review unit and 10 minutes later, the still-inoperable features of my NAS magically start working, we know that the revolution is at long last underway.

OnHub can be ordered for $199 and it’ll ship “in a few weeks.”

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