What is Google really building?

Cloud Whatever the mysterious “entertainment device” is that Google is seeking permission from the FCC to test in the homes of its employees, it almost certainly is not a device for streaming music wirelessly around the home, as the Wall Street Journal speculated last week. While I’m sure it will be capable of streaming music wirelessly, I’m certain it will be capable of a lot more than that, too.

The device itself isn’t really much of a mystery. Google pretty much told us what it would be last year, at Google I/O 2011, when it showed off a pair of “Tungston” devices. Among other things it does, Google described the Tungston as an “end point for Google Music Beta,” that would retrieve music stored in users’ Google cloud locker and stream it wirelessly around the house.

That really can’t be all there is to it, however. For one thing, as noted by Tom Cullen, co-founder of Sonos, which already sells a device for streaming music wirelessly around the home, his company’s total annual revenue is only about $200 million a year, which would barely register for Google, which raked in $38 billion last year. For another, the “home entertainment device” referred to in Google’s FCC application is not the only device it’s looking to test at the moment. Google has also filed an application with the agency to test a “next generation communications device” in the same four markets where it wants to test its entertainment device. It has also sought permission to test “an integrated access point as part of a fiber residential gateway.”

It seems pretty clear that Google’s “home entertainment device” is part of a broader platform strategy involving multiple devices and services. The Tungston devices demo’d last year, in fact, were running Google’s Android@Home software framework, which allows Android devices to communicate with other devices wirelessly, even if those other devices do not have WiFi capability. The Android@Home architecture also supports a broad range of functionality thanks to its underlying Android app support. That’s consistent with language in the testing applications for both the entertainment and communication devices referring to the testing of “network performance and its impact on applications running on the device.”

One key to understanding what’s going on can be found around the 43-minute market in the video below from last year’s Google I/O presentation. In it, Google demonstrates a Tungston device’s ability to add content from a CD to your library instantly simply by tapping an RFID-tagged CD case on the device. In other words, it’s a two-way system. Tungsten isn’t simply about streaming content from the cloud but ingesting content from the home and adding it to a cloud locker.

Another key can be found in Google’s petition to the court to intervene in the ReDigi case. I’ll have more on that case in an upcoming post. For now, it’s notable that Google’s main concern in ReDigi was the potential impact of a preliminary injunction against the second-hand MP3 seller on “the legal doctrines underpinning the ‘cloud computing’ industry.”

The petition cites two cases as forming the legal foundation of cloud computing: the Cablevision remote DVR case and Sony Betamax case, both of which involved the user-directed recording, storing and later playback of video content.

The Cablevision case in particular, Google said it its petition,

established that a service provider does not directly infringe copyright by operating a service that permits users to make copies, even if some of those copies may be infringing; the direct infringer (if any) is the user who supplies the “necessary element of volition” to cause the copy to be made…Second, Cablevision confirmed that a performance is not “public”—and therefore does not invade the copyright owner’s exclusive right under 17 U.S.C. § 106(4)—if it is transmitted from a copy of the work that is uniquely identified to a particular user, even if other users receive transmissions of the same work from different copies.

The court ultimately rejected Google’s request to intervene in the case. But Google’s keen interest in the legal issues at stake suggests it has ambitions to offer a service “to make copies” of video content and store them in the cloud.

Whatever Google is building, it’s likely to involve a platform for ingesting, storing, managing and restreaming of music, video and presumably other types of content, to and from the cloud, from multiple sources and across multiple devices. It will be based on Android and will leverage the Android@Home framework to incorporate non-Android, non-connected devices.

It may in the near term include Google selling consumer devices under its own name. But I doubt that’s part of the long-term strategy.