Google’s high-profile, $12.5 billion acquisition of Motorola Mobility, which closed yesterday, has set the tech world abuzz with speculation on Google’s first steps as it enters the hardware business: They’re going to do a 180-revival of Motorola! No, Motorola is doomed! No, they’re going to shutter Android! Google’s second, much quieter acquisition this week, of San Francisco industrial design studio Mike & Maaike, answers most of those questions.
Mike Simonian, who cofounded the studio in 2005 with his partner, Maaike Evers, told Fast Company in a recent email exchange: “We have recently begun working within Google to help build an industrial design team for Android.” At Google, Simonian and Evers will be able to exercise even more of the creative muscle that put them on our 2012 list of the 100 Most Creative People in Business. Android isn’t commenting yet, naturally, but it’s confirmation that Google has its sights set on a killer Android device that’s guaranteed to sport some impressive specs, courtesy of Mike & Maaike and Motorola, the company that invented the first commercial cell phone.
With this acquisition Google is finally consecrating its long-term, unofficial relationship with the studio, which began when Google commissioned the G1, the first production phone to run the Android operating system, back in 2007. The G1 eventually entered the market as the T-Mobile HTC Dream in October 2008, 16 months after Apple sold its first commercial iPhones. T-Mobile sold one million Dreams in its first six months, quickly establishing the Dream as the iPhone’s strongest contender. But the Dream’s hardware had the functionality and aesthetic of the popular smartphones at the time, namely, the Sidekicks and the BlackBerrys.
When the G1 was still in its conceptual phase, Simonian and Evers referred to the stark contrast between the crowded Yahoo and minimal-but-functional Google homepages for hardware inspiration. “We wanted to emphasize the directness, the simplicity, and the tool-like approach,” they told Co.Design editor Cliff Kuang in 2009. “The goal was to create something that was authentic to Google, and if you look at Google’s website, it’s very minimal not because of the aesthetic, but because of the function. That sort of steered the design in the directions that it went.”
To Simonian and Evers, simplicity in a phone meant a large screen and very few buttons that would directly interface with the software. But management structure in the early days meant Google ultimately settled on a version of the G1 that also included a slideout QWERTY keypad. Part of Google’s reasoning for that undoubtedly came from Android cofounder Andy Rubin, who had previously cofounded Danger, Inc., the producer of the Hiptop phone, later known as the T-Mobile Sidekick.
But Google’s desire to maintain the smartphone status quo was also a result of the fact that industrial design was never the company’s strong suit. Google needed a hardware company to show them—along with the rest of the world—what the future of the smartphone would look like. Google needed Apple, but Mike & Maaike didn’t. “We proposed to do something like the iPhone before the iPhone came out,” they told Kuang. “[Google] said it needed to have a physical keyboard because they didn’t want to alienate people."
Now that Mike & Maaike is officially under Google’s wing, it’ll be interesting to see whether or not Google will listen more closely in the future. It’s safe to say Google’s early visions for smartphone design were, if not naïve, hardly groundbreaking. But Mike & Maaike have a decent track record of forward-thinking design. Simonian conceived the Xbox 360 with Astro Studios in 2004. Today, it’s still the best-selling console in the U.S. In 2009, the studio designed the driverless concept car ATNMBL mere months before Google unveiled a test fleet of automated Toyota Priuses in October 2010. California just became the most recent state to approve a bill that will allow driverless cars to prowl the streets.
"For centuries, we controlled our machines with levers, then knobs, then buttons, and finally displays on the machines themselves," Simonian told Fast Company, in anticipation of the next wave of mobile device design. "Just about every product category is ripe for substantial change."