There was a lot of talk in the '80s and '90s about the paperless office. As personal computers began to proliferate, we were told, paper would go away. We now know the opposite happened, and that we use more paper than ever.
Similarly, in design schools of the '90s, one of the hot topics was dematerialization. The thinking was that technology would reduce the amount of physical objects we interacted with. As industrial designers whose job was to create physical products, we were told, our challenge would be to focus on getting the user experience right.
I saw this dematerialization begin to come true in 2001 with the release of the original iPod. Suddenly I no longer had to carry a Discman and a bunch of discs around if I wanted to listen to music. This trend accelerated sharply in 2007; with this new thing called an iPhone, I no longer had to carry an iPod, a camera, books. Just one little rectangle.
But the iPhone was the last invention I can think of that reduced my personal object load. Since then the leading-edge companies have been making more objects, not less. Apple's expanded into watches. Amazon used to be a bookseller, now they make the Fire and the Echo. GoPro made cameras, now they're making drones. Google used to be a web portal, and yesterday they rolled out an entire line of physical products, starting with their Pixel phone:
Their WiFi router:
Google Home, their speaker and Amazon Echo competitor:
And their Daydream View VR headset:
The videos aren't terribly original nor exciting, and if you blur your eyes they could've been made by Apple or any other competitor. But that's not the point, as these are intended to be splashy eye-candy videos. What I found telling is that Google also released some "How these fit into your life" videos, like this one for the Google Home…
…and in every case, the traffic for the eye-candy videos surpasses the traffic of the lifestyle videos. To me, the disparity suggests one of two things: Either that 1) People already understand how these objects would (or would not) fit into their lives, and don't need to see a video spelling it out, or 2) People don't care how these objects fit into their lives, and are only interested in the New New New.
Whether it's the former or the latter, it appears that we'll be seeing, at least from the companies mentioned here, more physical objects rather than less. That doesn't mean all of them will stick around: The HTC First, a/k/a the Facebook Phone, famously flopped; so did Amazon's Fire smartphone; and anyone remember Google Glass? But we can expect to see continued incursions by companies that have the money.
For years Google was content to stay out of this space, letting others make the phone and licensing Android for free while they profited only off embedded Android services. The control was decentralized. But now they're finally coming around to what Steve Jobs seized upon at least as far back as 2001, with that original iPod, and that was the realization that it's only partially about the object, and more about the product ecosystem that it operates within. When you've got control over the entire system, from hardware to software, you can more fully control the user experience (for better or worse). That Google is now ready to take this step means that Apple and the others will have to up their game. The ensuing competition, and a willingness to experiment, should ultimately lead to better experiences for consumers.