Is Google Ripping Off Apple by Opening Its Own Retail Stores?

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Feb. 19 2013 3:00 PM

Is Google Ripping Off Apple by Opening Its Own Retail Stores?

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A Google employee speaks with a visitor at the company's booth at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2010.

Photo by Ralph Orlowski/Getty Images

Steve Jobs must be going thermonuclear in his grave.

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer. Email him at will.oremus@slate.com or follow him on Twitter.

According to Walter Isaacson's biography, the late Apple chief was so incensed at Google over its Android mobile operating system—a "stolen product," in his eyes—that he was willing to risk everything to destroy it. Instead, Android has captured 70 percent of the global smartphone market

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Now the Wall Street Journal, following the blog 9to5Google, reports that Google is working on plans for a string of Apple-like retail stores, presumably as showcases for the company's mobile devices, among other products. 

The move would make sense on multiple levels. Apple Stores not only serve as the company's public face, they also make piles of money—more per square foot than any other retail chain in the United States. And the stores' famed customer service reinforces brand loyalty. As long as Google was mainly just making software to run on other companies' phones, those things didn't matter very much. Now that the company is working closely with hardware manufacturers to develop its own smartphones, tablets, laptops, and even home entertainment systems, a Google Store would have plenty to stock its shelves.

The irony, though, is that Google still wouldn't need to steal this particular Apple idea if it were just in the business of making Apple knockoffs. Customers don't need a high-touch retail experience to understand why they might want to buy an Android phone. All they need is a side-by-side comparison of Android and iPhone prices and features. 

Rather, it's the company's foray into genuinely innovative hardware that would make retail stores a necessity. Chromebooks are one example. The company has already set up Google kiosks in Best Buy to explain to customers the value of these ultra-simple laptops, which have no direct corollary in Apple's lineup. But the most compelling reason of all to open a Google Store, as 9to5Google points out, might be Google Glass.

The leadership thought consumers would need to try Google Glass firsthand to make a purchase. Without being able to use them first hand, few non-techies would be interested in buying Google's glasses (which will retail from between $500 to $1,000). From there, the decision to sell other Google-branded products made sense.

Along with Glass, Google will have an opportunity to demonstrate other upcoming and Google X projects like driverless cars and mini-drone delivery systems at its stores.

If Google follows through on its retail plans, it may indeed be another sign that it is studying Apple's playbook for building a brand, as the Wall Street Journal has it. But more importantly, it will be a sign that Google's hardware playbook has sprouted some fresh tricks of its own—potentially, the type of groundbreaking, category-defining devices that made Jobs and Apple worth ripping off in the first place.

Google's stock, by the way, reached a new high on Tuesday, clearing $800 for the first time.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.