Google Inc. today introduced possibly the largest array of major new hardware products ever at one time, yet another indication that the search giant aims to hit every available consumer technology touchpoint to maintain its growth.
But it’s also clearer than ever that the shiny new hardware (above) unveiled at a “Made by Google” event in a former chocolate factory power station in San Francisco — from two new Pixel smartphones Google itself designed and built to a new virtual reality viewer to the Google Home smart speaker — are not the real stars when it comes to Google’s future. Instead, they’re just the latest, and far from the last, examples of the company’s plan to embed its services and software in every nook and cranny of our lives.
Expanding on comments he has made in recent months, Google Chief Executive Sundar Pichai said computing is evolving from “mobile-first” to “AI-first.” Artificial intelligence now is imbued in nearly all of Google’s services from email to search to experimental projects such as self-driving cars, and now Google wants to spread it throughout every device and location.
“Computing will be everywhere in the context of people’s everyday lives,” he said. “Our goal is to build a personal Google for each and every user.”
Central to that vision is Google Home, introduced at the company’s I/O developer conference in May but now set to be sold for $129 starting Nov. 4 in the U.S. at the Google Play Store, Best Buy, Wal-Mart and Target. Like Amazon.com Inc.’s Echo, it’s more of an ambient computer than just a wireless voice-response speaker, even if Google felt compelled to tout how great the speaker sounds.
But even more important than the Home device itself is the cloud software behind it, Google Assistant. The successor to Google Now, it’s intended to be a personal assistant that, like Google search, gets smarter and more personalized with every request, be it requests to play a Spotify playlist, recite a recipe or provide directions and arrange a reservation at a restaurant near a concert you’re attending.
“The future of Google will be the Assistant,” Rishi Chandra, vice president of product management for Google’s Chromecast media streaming devices, said in an interview. “We wanted to have a connective overlay over all these devices and apps.”
And that’s the big play for Google, whose search box was the icon and financial goldmine of the web era. With the rise of smartphones and apps, Google’s dominant position atop the Internet ecosystem has been under threat. And Apple Inc. has managed to stay on top of tech with iPhones and other devices that continue to set the standard for consumer tech devices. Assistant is intended to keep Google at least resident, if not always the leader, in every device, app and location where people want to work and live.
“We want to embed the Google Assistant wherever you are,” Chandra said.
The Google Home device is the central piece of that strategy, in part because, Chandra said, “it give the whole company clarity of direction with an uber-interface.” Rick Osterloh, head of Google’s newly formed hardware group, also said Google believes — like Apple always has, it’s worth noting — that hardware and software need to work together seamlessly. “The next advances in computing will take place at the intersection of hardware and software, led by AI,” he said.
That’s something Google has struggled to do with its widespread but fragmented Android mobile software, but this could provide a new path. “Google is not turning into a hardware business,” said Thomas Husson, principal analyst at Forrester Research Inc. “On the contrary, Google wants to showcase that it will continue to be a relevant platform to access information on whatever connected device consumers use.”
At the event today, Google set up several mock rooms of a house, such as a living room and kitchen, that showed how Home devices — which also will sell for $299 for a three-pack — can be used for a variety of tasks. For now, that includes four distinct actions: enjoying music, asking Google for information, managing everyday tasks and controlling devices at home.
Each of the actions draws on Google’s machine learning to understand, in an increasingly personal way over time, what people really mean when they ask it to do something. For instance, if you say, “Good morning, Google,” the Home device will provide the weather, the length of your commute and your appointments for the day. “If the President can get a daily briefing, why can’t you?” Chandra said.
Multiple devices are designed to work together, with multi-room audio support so, for example, the same song can play across devices in different rooms. Home devices also are designed so that only the device that hears you best will respond.
However, Chandra and other Google executives signaled that the home is just the first place that Google Assistant is intended to be embedded into people’s lives. He also said it’s likely Google will expand Assistant into cars, into devices at work and beyond.
That will require lots of partners that make devices and apps. Google today announced plans to open a developer ecosystem starting in December for voice actions, including customer conversational interfaces. It’s also developing an embedded software development kit for that, set to launch sometime next year. Netflix Inc., for instance, soon will support this “voicecasting” so you can say, for instance, “OK, Google, watch Stranger Things on Netflix” without the need for a remote or smartphone.
Beware the hype
That’s the vision, anyway. But Google admitted that the demonstrations were recorded, not live. That makes it difficult to compare immediately with Amazon’s Echo, Microsoft Corp.’s Cortana and other AI-driven voice interfaces.
“Everything Google showed on-stage was very compelling, but as we have seen with most claims in intelligent assistants, rarely if ever have they lived up to the hype,” said Patrick Moorhead, principal at Moor Insights & Strategy. “To claim game-changer, Google Assistant must do what it did on stage.”
The problem is that Google hasn’t demonstrated its ability to sell direct to consumers at scale, Forrester Principal Analyst Julie Ask said in an email. “Both Home and [Google’s recently introduced mobile messaging app] Allo are essential to Google’s portfolio and strength as a mobile power player longer term. Google needs to succeed here.”
But if Google delivers, using its AI technology widely seen as among the most advanced, Home could appeal to consumers. And Google may have some advantages with its longstanding search and AI technologies. “Google Home’s voicecast and the $129 price point will set it apart from the competition,” said Ronan de Renesse, head of consumer research with the research firm Ovum. “And the integration of the Google Home speaker with Chromecast will be significant differentiator” because entertainment is core to the smart home.
Of course, there’s a cautionary aspect to an assistant that’s listening all the time, a concern raised with Echo as well. “As with Google Assistant, consumers must keep in mind that this personal information is being mined by Google to create improved advertising profiles,” Moorhead said.
Pixel – Best smartphone camera?
The new phones, dubbed Pixel, were almost an anticlimax after rampant leaks of their likely introduction. Google noted the sleek design (complete with a “satisfyingly not new” earphone plug, a dig at Apple’s iPhone 7, which left it out), the camera it claims is the best on any smartphone, free Google cloud space for all original-quality photos and videos, and support for Google’s Daydream virtual reality technology.
The phones, which come in 5-inch and 5.5-inch sizes, are now available for pre-order at the Google store in the U.S. and some other countries at a base price of $649. “Aside from the camera, the new Google Pixels are pretty undifferentiated compared to Samsung and iPhone seventh-generation phones,” Moorhead said. “They don’t exactly swing anyone around the room.”
Also expected but delivered with more surprises was the Daydream VR viewer, which works with the new Pixel phones and others later. It’s made using fabric, which makes it at least look much more comfortable than other VR viewers. Clay Bavor, who heads Google’s VR team, said Daydream View is also 30 percent lighter than similar devices and fits over glasses.
Google is working with studios and YouTube creators to come up with VR content for Daydream. One exclusive announced by Arienne McCallister, director of partnerships for Daydream: a Fantastic Beasts experience from Warner Brothers, based on J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World. Other partners include games such as EVE Gunjack Next as well as Netflix, HBO, Hulu and the New York Times Magazine. “To break VR out of the early adopter stage, Google will need to give the sense that there is a lot of content or face lack of adoption,” Moorhead said.