Google has finally recognized that wireless networking isn't nearly as easy as it should be. On Tuesday, the company introduced a $200 home WiFi router called OnHub, from hardware partner TP-LINK, to provide a more reliable, easy way to make Internet connectivity available around the home.
The realization that wireless networking isn't always available or worry-free has taken years. When the company introduced its Chromebooks in 2011, the notion that the device would be a brick without network connectivity was dismissed by Google executives as an edge case.
While that may have been a pragmatic way to deflect questions about a known weakness – before long, Google had adapted its web apps to run offline – Google's willness to address the issue coincides with the emergence of a new concern, the Internet of Things.
Google and the rest of the technology industry are eager to sell consumers on an array of new Internet-connected devices and home appliances. But networking problems could become an obstacle to adoption. With more devices, there's more potential for connectivity problems. And not everyone wants to become an at-home network administrator overseeing a dozen or more connected devices, many of which may not have the user-friendliness of phones.
Also, there's doubt about IoT security. A recent survey by the Ponemon Institute, sponsored by security firm Trend Micro, found that among respondents, only 44% said they believe the benefits of IoT outweigh their concerns about privacy and security.
For Google, not to mention the rest of the tech industry, IoT spells data. And OnHub offers the company another opportunity to collect it, as spelled out in a support document. Google says OnHub collects anonymous usage data, like how long downloads take and counts of the different WAN protocols being used, to improve OnHub. It collects data through the OnHub app and through related cloud services too.
But none of that is particularly sinister. Though perhaps to a lesser extent than Google, any technology company with apps or devices that connect to cloud services is probably collecting analytics data in some form or another. And Google, given its size and history with regulatory agencies, is likely to take its data stewardship commitments seriously.
Google's pitch for OnHub echoes that of a recent router startup, Eero, which uses the tagline, "Finally, WiFi that works." Unfortunately for Eero, shipping this fall for early pre-orders and December 1 for Amazon pre-orders, it looks like Google and its hardware partners – beyond TP-LINK, ASUS is expected to announce a related product later this year – will get to market first.
What remains to be seen is whether mutiple Eero devices can provide better signal strength throughout a residence than a single OnHub. There's also the possibility that Apple, which hasn't updated its Airport Extreme since mid-2013, may be planning to compete more vigorously in the home networking arena.
OnHub offers several features that should make it enticing to those who want to spend less time worrying about their home network. It relies on a verified boot process, to ensure that its software hasn't been compromised, and promises automatic security updates. It can be managed through a mobile app (Android and iOS), which may appeal to people uncomfortable with typing a local IP address into a browser to bring up a router management page. It handles automatic channel switching to avoid wireless traffic congestion. And it supports traffic management in the form of app prioritization. This allows streaming apps, for example, to ensure they have enough bandwidth to deliver high quality video.
Finally, OnHub is designed for IoT: It supports Weave, Google's IoT protocol, Bluetooth Smart Ready (4.0), and 802.15.4, a WiFi standard for low-cost, low-power devices.
Sophisitcated home routers share many of these capabilities and may offer more finely grained networking controls. But such devices are best administered by sophisticated users. OnHub is aiming at a different demographic.
OnHub is supposed to be available for pre-order in the U.S. though the Google Store, Amazon, and Walmart.com. But it is currently out of stock. Google says OnHub will be available in retail stores in the U.S. and Canada in a few weeks.
Update: Corrected Eero shipping dates.Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful ... View Full Bio