Here's what Google's new engineering lab is doing in Chicago

Former owner of Motorola Mobility is back in the smartphone biz here

Manuel Martinez
James Tanner, left, and Todd Roesler spent much of their early careers at Motorola. They now lead engineering teams for Google's hardware business.

In one of the great ironies of Chicago tech, Google is again turning to Motorola to help realize its ambitions in the smartphone business. Google bought Motorola Mobility in 2012, only to unload it to Lenovo two years later. Now Google is quietly assembling the people it needs to design phones in a new Chicago lab, often drawing from the Motorola talent pool.

The re-reversal started 18 months ago with the hiring of a former Motorola Mobility engineer named David Lim. Today Google is up to about 80 engineers, working on everything from circuitry and antenna design to the hardware itself. They're spread out across a floor of Google's Midwest headquarters building in the Fulton Market neighborhood. The facility is the only U.S. hardware lab outside Google's main offices in Silicon Valley. "We have everything needed to design and build a phone start to finish," says James Tanner, 44, who leads Google's mechanical engineering teams.

The lab has contraptions that can drop phones and drop things onto phones, as well as large metal vaults that allow engineers to measure and test radio signals and sound without interference. Technicians can measure components down to the micron, test the glue used to attach screens and cases to phones, as well as simulate the effects of temperature and humidity.

79彩票注册网址"We seeded the office with a lot of senior talent, people with 20 years' experience building phones," says Todd Roesler, who hired on at Google a year ago as electrical engineering manager for hardware. He was at Motorola from 1997 to 2008, before joining BlackBerry's Chicago office and later working for two San Francisco Bay Area tech companies. "Motorola's a big influence, but it's not all Motorola people. . . .We've hired a lot of people fresh out of school."

Google is still hiring, though execs won't say how many jobs they plan to add this year. "We continue to attract top-notch engineers and designers, thanks to the incredible pool of talent the city has to offer," says Rick Osterloh, a Motorola veteran who was hired to run Google's hardware division two years ago.

79彩票注册网址That Google is designing hardware here says as much about the evolution of the web-search ad platform as its Chicago office. The Alphabet subsidiary has been in the phone business for a decade since creating the Android operating system, which today is installed on about 85 percent of the phones sold worldwide. The Chicago office primarily was a sales operation, although the company has been building up its software engineering team in recent years. Google's local headcount is approaching 900, up from about 650 when it moved from River North in late 2015. About 20 percent are engineers.

The Google lab is a smaller version of the facilities it built on the upper floors of the Merchandise Mart for Motorola. Motorola Mobility's staff is down to a fourth of the 2,000 people Lenovo inherited in 2014.

Other companies, such as Verifone Systems, recently have scooped up Motorola talent, too. San Jose, Calif.-based Verifone, which makes credit card terminals for retailers, has about two dozen people in a new engineering center in the Loop and continues to hire.

A TALENT CENTER

Chicago has been one of the world's centers of wireless hardware engineering talent since Motorola debuted the commercial cellphone in 1984. "It's outstanding that Google is putting an engineering office here," says Jeff Skutnick, a former Motorola engineer who spent the past decade leading BlackBerry and Wistron offices in Rolling Meadows, which have since closed. "There are a lot of vendors who feed into that, so it keeps people employed around Chicago. It keeps an ecosystem alive."

79彩票注册网址Google's Tanner, who grew up in Warsaw, Ind., joined the company seven years ago in Mountain View, Calif., as it was hiring a team to work on Chromebook laptops. Like Roesler, he manages teams in both Chicago and California. But he jumped at the chance to move back to Chicago, where he'd spent 12 years with Motorola.

Google won't say exactly what the Chicago team is working on, but it's likely not limited to phones. Google, like Apple, is competing with Amazon in the business for new "smart home" devices that work with voice-activated virtual assistants, such as Alexa, that are powered by artificial intelligence.

SOFTWARE COMPANY AT HEART

Google recently spent , which netted it 2,000 hardware engineers. But Google is, at heart, a software company. It remains to be seen whether the company is committed to hardware long term. Google nearly doubled shipments of its Pixel phones last year to about 3.5 million, but it has just a 1.3 percent market share in the U.S., according to International Data, a research firm in Framingham, Mass.

"I see this as a long-term play for them," says International Data analyst Ryan Reith. "To succeed, they have to start really ramping up their investment, the dollars they're willing to put behind the advertising. That's what gets you shelf space in saturated markets like the U.S. and Western Europe."

More:

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79彩票注册网址Roesler says the phone business has a unique appeal for engineers. "From a consumer-electronics perspective, it's the center of the universe."

79彩票注册网址Although there are plenty of familiar faces and gear, Google's home in the West Loop is a far cry from the suburbs where many Motorola engineers spent much of their careers. It's in the city's hottest neighborhood, dotted by cranes erecting office buildings, apartments, condos and hotels. For last year's holiday party, the hardware team went to a Blackhawks game at the United Center, which can be seen from the Google office.

79彩票注册网址For now, at least, the hardware game goes on in Chicago.