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With Maker Program, Google Makes A Case For The Home Router (And You Can Too)

Mike Wolf Google OnHub

When Google introduced the OnHub earlier this year, it was clear they wanted to reinvent the home router.  Not a bad idea since, after all, the home router has long been a device where usability and design are afterthoughts, and today's modern smart home is desperate for a new approach that goes beyond what most products offer in this forgotten category. 

Part of the OnHub story was trying to create a better looking device, one that would be at home in the center of the home and not be relegated to the nest of wires in the basement. And with today's news that Google and its partners are introducing a Maker site to spur creative design for OnHub shells, they've clearly taken the idea of better design to a degree I've never seen in the router category, essentially opening up a maker hub where designers and ordinary folks alike can all tap their inner Yves Behar. What they're doing is, in a sense, taking the smartphone case concept and applying it to the router. 

Of course, making the OnHub more attractive is just part of the vision for OnHub, but one that goes hand in hand with a simpler, better product. This combination of simpler and better looking is the central design conceit of forward-leaning product design since the introduction of the iPhone, which became the template for so many hardware designers since. Don't get me wrong, comparing a Google device to an Apple one isn't meant to be a dig, but a compliment, as I really do think they're doing the right thing and on path for a fresh approach to what has historically been a device that was all about function and no form. 

That said, my one concern, more broadly, with the OnHub is that they make the same mistake that a previous router maker made when trying to simplify the experience. Some of you may remember the Cisco Valet router series, which was the product of an ill-fated acquisition of Pure Digital (the makers of the Flip camera). The Valet's industrial design and software were designed by the same team who made the Flip, and was Cisco's attempt to take the home router and make it look less like the Linky and more like a sexy piece of Apple-like hardware. 

The problem? The router was ok as routers go, but the product was so simplified it made it difficult to unlock advanced features. Using mine,I felt the interface was constricting and made it hard to configure it the way I wanted to. 

In the end, Cisco end-of-lifed the Valet pretty quickly, in part because they didn't sell well (abandoning the Linksys brand was, in retrospect, a poor decision) and also because Cisco decided to exit the consumer business. I would have liked to see where this experiment went, and have to wonder if Valet 2.0 would have more fully realized the vision of a better home router.

As for OnHub, the early feedback I've heard is that the router works well, but the advanced features are fairly limited. This doesn't worry me too much, since unlike Cisco, Google is a software company that iterates and recreates products over time with software, and I expect we'll see the OnHub feature set evolve and get better (including, as I've written before, unlocking more smart home features). 

For now, however, the OnHub is a moderately powerful home router with an interesting and (now) transformable outer exterior shell.  Long term they just need to make sure that as more features come on board, they're easily accessible, striking that balance between beauty and function that Apple has traditionally done so well. 

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