Friday TechCrunch reported another big rumor: “Google is preparing to distribute millions of custom mobile devices to small businesses around the U.S., says a source with knowledge of the program.” The article goes on to say “8 million devices” will be distributed but then says it could be less.
TechCrunch speculates that the devices could “allow customers to check in to businesses, leave reviews and possibly even purchase items via Google checkout.”
These devices would apparently NOT be Android phones but some POS-like unit that will be directed largely at the consumer in the store or shop. There’s a bit of a paradox or tension there: a device (albeit free) that I, the business owner, install to allow my customers to rate me.
I immediately asked Google for a comment and received a standard but nicely delivered: “We don’t comment on rumor or speculation.”
As I’ve previously said many times Google almost never does anything with a single objective in mind. Here too, assuming some version of what TechCrunch says is true, there might be multiple objectives for such a program:
- Build a more direct marketing pipeline to the SMB
- Get consumers to check in on Places/Latitude (and capture other data perhaps)
- Promote usage of Google checkout
- Create a loyalty marketing platform for SMBs
Even if the devices exist and are going to be distributed, the “8 million” figure is almost certainly wrong. This is almost the entire “addressable” SMB market in the US. Google would more likely do a test with a small number of SMBs initially — perhaps such a test has already been done. Regardless, you’re not going to see anything like 8 million (or even anything approaching a million) show up in the beginning if such a program is launched.
Eight million might be Google’s internal market sizing for the unnamed program.
These “custom mobile devices” would need to be part of a loyalty marketing program or platform to be interesting at all to consumers. Most would simply not engage with them unless there was an incentive to do so.
Another intriguing angle for me is Checkout, which is perhaps Google’s biggest “miss” after Buzz in recent memory. Google neglected to explain and market Checkout or its benefits to consumers and so very few people use it (as far as I can tell). The company has tried to revive Checkout in several ways (e.g., Android) but it still has not lived up to its potential as a payments platform. Now that mobile payments are starting to become real I expect Google to try and be more directly involved in that arena.
For one thing, Google could use Checkout to offer cheaper credit-card processing to merchants. That would be quite appealing to some. Google would of course need to get consumers to set up Checkout accounts for this to work. Again, there would need to be an initial incentive of some kind to motivate consumers to participate. However one-click payments might be one of the things to do at the POS on these devices. (There’s a potential issue with who “owns” the customer data, however.)
If Checkout were a centerpiece of these devices, Google could potentially gain valuable data and would be able to “close the loop” between online research and offline buying. Think about it: I’m signed in to Google, I search on my PC or smartphone, I see/click PPC or display ads, I show up in store and buy with Checkout. Google would potentially be able to track and capture this entire “purchase cycle.” You could even hypothetically track display impressions and their “latent offline impact” in such as system.
You’d have all the privacy and “big brother” objections of course (many of them would be very loud). But for Google and its advertisers and SMB customers there would be some very interesting information gleaned by the system. Today comScore works with some retailers and advertisers to try and connect credit card data to online marketing.
Heaping speculation upon conjecture, I don’t think this — I’ll call it “Google POS” — winds up “killing” Facebook Places or Foursquare (et al). I also don’t think it would lead to a substantially greater number of SMB AdWords advertisers. It could lead to more SMB Tag users or SMB coupon issuers by contrast. Google also might get more SMB Places registrations and more complete and accurate local data — and perhaps valuable related metadata.
As an aside I think eventually what happens is that Google folds Latitude (maybe mobile Buzz) into Places, and it becomes the “check in” vehicle.
Google has shown several times (Android, Google TV) that it’s certainly able and willing to make big bets and do dramatic things to enter markets. I don’t know what part of what TechCruch says is true. But if any of it is it’s almost certainly an effort to push a number of Google initiatives simultaneously.
What do you think about all this and what such a program might turn out to be?