Is entertainment a trojan horse for the digital home?

Google's Nexus Q streaming media device is its second bid for a foothold in our living rooms. But is it also a warning of a locked-down digital home?

Oddly, in amongst all the announcements that Google made at Google I/O this week, I can’t help feeling that the Nexus Q was the most interesting. Not because exit’s the most likely to succeed – it has an uphill struggle ahead of it – but because it represents Google’s second salvo in a battle that nobody seems to know quite how to fight.

How do we connect the internet to our houses? Not just in the prosaic sense of having a broadband connection into the house, of course, but in the more complex sense of tying the objects within our home to the internet in surprising and enabling ways.

The internet of things was a pervasive theme of this year’s NEXT conference. There’s a clear move towards connecting more and  more of our environment to the internet in clever, useful ways. Yet all the interesting development seems to be coming from independent companies – they’re the ones connecting dolls and clothes to the internet. All three of the major OS makers are trying for our home through the same basic route:  our entertainment systems.

This is one area that Microsoft clearly has a head-start. The XBox 360 gaming console is the clear leader in this generation of consoles, and with it Microsoft has gained a foothold in the living room, even as its grasp of the mobile and desktop worlds has loosened. Apple has its “hobby” of the Apple TV, now three generations in and, despite persistent rumours, yet to become anything more.

Google already has the Google TV system, which, despite some aggressive predictions, has yet to gain any serious traction. And now the Nexus Q is designed to be a strange mix of music amp and TV set-top box. It’s a pure “catcher” – it has no internal interface you can access through your TV – the steaming is all controlled from your Android phone or tablet. It’s a visually fascinating device that might well appeal to a segment of the buying public – ones that are happy to have glowing lights in their rooms. But, unlike the X-Box 360 or the Apple TV, it’s inherently an add-on. You need an Android device of some sort to control it. It cannot live by its own. That’s why it’s going to be such an uphill struggle to make this one a success.

It relegates your TV and your sound systems to peripherals to your phone or tablet. There’s a certain sense in that: the most powerful device retains control. However, there are some pretty significant drawbacks – especially in a family home. Everyone who wants a say in how the device is used needs access to an Android device. Do you have a “family” tablet anyone can use? (The new Nexus 7 makes that a little more financially viable) Or are you locking your entire family into buying Android gear?

And, in that, the Nexus Q betrays its roots: it’s an attempt to make us buy into an ecosystem, not a truly useful connected device in its own right. While many of us seem happy to tie our phones to a single vendor – do we really want to make our homes a single-vendor environment? The space around us has a dramatic effect on our lives, our relationships and our wellbeing. I’m not sure I’d be willing to surrender my control over that to any one technology company. Would you?