Four days ago, on October 4, Google hosted a hardware event to unveil eight new products. What are these products, what’s driving them and how does it help Google’s parent company, Alphabet, further mature its presence in the hardware segment?
New Products “Made by Google”
Since last year, Alphabet has been touting the “Made by Google” branding for its hardware products. They began modestly, with two models of smartphones and a smart speaker. Based on the success that these products are seeing in the market, the company seems to be accelerating the pace of its hardware product development.
This year, Google released two Google Pixel smartphones, the Pixel 2 and 2 XL, two new Google Home smart speakers, Google Clips (AI-capable camera), a Daydream VR headset, AI-enhanced headphones called Pixel Buds and a Pixelbook laptop.
Let’s first cover these products before delving into why Google is pushing so hard on the hardware front.
Pixel 2 and 2 XL
We’ve covered these phones extensively while they were still in the design and manufacturing phases, and now we have a chance to cover the actual products.
The company has chosen to maintain the same general design philosophy with the new Pixel models, with some significant changes.
For example, the 2 XL sports a pOLED screen rather than the AMOLED from last year’s Pixel and Pixel XL, as well as this year’s Pixel 2. It also comes with the darling processor of 2017 premium Android smartphones: the Snapdragon 835 from Qualcomm. The Android version is, of course, the latest Android 8.0 Oreo, which has some significant new features of its own specific to how apps are handled by the OS. Google Pixel 2 comes with 4GB of RAM and 64/128GB memory options. The phones also support Bluetooth 5.0, the latest version of the wireless technology.
Of note is the Active Edge feature, which allows the user to squeeze the sides of the phone to activate Google Assistant, Google’s very own voice-activated, AI-enabled Girl Friday. The rear camera is essentially the same as last year’s model, with a 12.2MP sensor on the rear and an 8MP front selfie shooter. Interestingly, the “boring” single sensor setup beats the iPhone 8 Plus’ and the Note 8’s dual lens setup in terms of image quality. Per the DxO benchmark, Pixel 2 achieved an impressive score of 98 out of 100, setting a new record for smartphone camera quality.
Price-wise, the Google Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL have a solid edge over Apple’s iPhone lineup for 2017, as well as Samsung’s much-lauded Note 8. The Pixel 2 starts at $649 and the Pixel 2 XL starts at $849. In contrast, iPhone X begins at $999, while Note 8 has a starting price of $929. The iPhone 8 is a lot closer to Google’s price point, but even that start at a slightly heftier $699. The iPhone 8 Plus, however, is cheaper than the Pixel 2 XL, and retails for $799.
It remains to be seen how popular these phones are during the holiday shopping season, considering the fact that this is only the second generation of smartphones made by Google. However, judging by consumer reactions so far, it seems like both Apple and Samsung could be facing another strong future contender in the smartphone segment. The Chinese giants like Huawei, Oppo, Vivo and Xiaomi are already eating market share, and then there’s Andy Rubin’s Essential PH-1 as well. 2017 smartphone market share distribution is going to be an interesting story to watch as it unfolds through the rest of the year.
New Google Home Smart Speakers
Piggybacking on the success of the original Google Home, the company has released two new smart speakers under the same branding: Google Home Max and Google Home Mini.
The Max is more expensive than anything else on the market right now. At $399, it attempts to stretch the limits of what consumers are willing to pay for a smart virtual assistant mounted on speakers.
The design philosophy seems similar to the first Google Home in that it uses a nice blend of hard and soft materials, but this model sports stereo 4.5-inch woofers and two tweeters. It looks as though Google went for enhanced audio quality over pricing or broader appeal with the Google Home Max. That’s understandable, considering that Apple’s HomePod is coming out this year with premium audio capabilities, and Microsoft will be launching its Invoke speaker with Harman-Kardon audio hardware.
You can choose a vertical or horizontal orientation with the Max, because it has a “foot” that’s magnetically attached to the speaker. Connectivity is via a 3.5mm aux port and a USB-C port, but it also supports Bluetooth and, of course, Google Cast, which is what most users are likely to use on a regular basis to cast music and so on from their devices.
The AI aspect of Max allows it to adjust its volume based on the space that it’s put into and its position in that space. It does this by intelligently creating an audio profile of the room and optimizing the sound based on that profile. It takes a few seconds for the speaker to adjust its settings when you suddenly change its position, but the AI component is aurally palpable when that happens.
The only downside is that you can’t use the Google Home Max as a replacement for your TV’s external speakers. The level of complexity involved in getting audio on the Home to sync perfectly with the visuals on TV are mind-boggling. But Google is apparently thinking about doing exactly that. For now, though, you’ll have to be satisfied using the Max as a standalone speaker.
The Google Home Mini is a watered-down version of last year’s Google Home, and looks like it’s designed to compete with the Echo Dot from Amazon. The price point of $49 is in line with that assumption as well.
The Mini is an inch and a half tall and about four inches across. Though it doesn’t have any visible buttons, you can tap on the top to pause the audio, and tap on the left or right to control volume. There’s also a mute switch on the back that basically disables the wake words “Ok Google.”
The Mini clearly addresses the lower end of the smart speaker market: Audio just good enough for podcasts, news updates and even music for the non-audiophile, or just a mini hub designed to house Google Assistant, which is the biggest draw anyway.
The only problem is, the form factor makes it extremely tempting for small kids to use it as a skipping stone. That’s one expensive skipping stone, so parents, watch out!
This high-end Chromebook was a long time coming. At a starting price of $999, it’s not cheap, but it’s a pretty solid piece of hardware. It’s basically a touch-screen device with a keyboard, but it’s not a hybrid 2-in-1 that can double-up as a tablet, although you can flip the keyboard all the way back and use it like one. In fact, the Pixelbook is more of a low-power laptop, at least when you compare it with a Surface or MacBook device.
The build itself is quite rugged, while being elegant at the same time, but it begs the question: why such an expensive Chromebook, when there are premium laptops within the upper end of the new Pixelbook’s pricing of $1,649?
Microsoft released a new Surface laptop a few months ago with Windows 10 S. But with the Surface Pro, there’s an option to upgrade to the full Windows 10; this Chromebook has no such option, obviously.
A better comparison would be Apple’s strategy to address the student market. Apple’s MacBooks are robust enough to withstand the rigors of student life, yet be equally functional after graduation. That’s the market Google is going after, and it makes sense, too. According to Google’s director of product management for the Pixelbook, Matt Vokou:
“As they start making their first purchase decision, they aspire for great, premium design. They want more performance specs. Devices above $999 are 20 percent of the market. It’s actually the fastest-growing part of the laptop market right now.”
There’s your answer, straight from the horse’s mouth. Truth be told, though, I would have preferred seeing some advancement in bringing Android closer to ChromeOS before this laptop was released. It’s clearly meant to be a premium laptop, so it would make sense to have had access to thousands upon thousands of mobile apps that are essentially out of reach of Apple and Microsoft devices. Google has been working double-time to get Android 8.0 Oreo and Chrome OS to be more compatible with each other, but so far there’s been little progress, simply because it is the app developers on Google Play Store that need to move their assets to get this going in a big way.
Overall, the Pixelbook laptop gets a 7/10 from us, for now.
These are Google’s answer to Apple’s AirPods, but they’ve got a secret weapon that nobody else does – a universal translator. It only works with a Pixel phone, but the buds could become a path-breaking device on this strength alone.
Using AI to infuse greater inherent intelligence into its hardware products, Google is setting a new direction for hardware makers all over the world, one that is AI-driven.
Many of the Pixel Buds’ features are similar to those of the AirPod – like tapping to access Google Assistant, tapping to turn the audio on and off, swiping forward or backward to control volume, charging in the case, etc. But using Google Translate for real-time conversations is revolutionary on its own. You simply press and hold down on the right earbud and tell Google Assistant what language you want to translate into. Then say the words in your own language, and the translated audio is played on the bud’s speakers for the other person to hear. When they respond, their translated response is played back to you on the earbuds.
With 40 languages currently supported, this could be the ideal tool for the tourism industry, for bureaucrats and several other markets. Will Google market it that way? We don’t know. But we do know that it has the potential to address gaping holes in multiple industries. At $159, they’re right at the price point that AirPods target, and understandably so. They’re very similar, but with this one unique feature that could make all the difference.
Daydream View VR Headset
This $99 head mounted device for smartphone VR content works with all Daydream-compatible smartphones. The experience falls somewhere between a DIY-type Cardboard and one of the high-end VR headsets on the market like the Oculus Rift, but the headset and remote’s design is pretty much the same as before. Until you take a closer look, that is.
Google says that the VR experience is better than on the original View, and that it has incorporated new materials – the new, more textured fabric, for example. It also has wider lenses, and the face mask now spreads the pressure more evenly across the face. The remote is now clipped on to the main strap rather than the inside of the front panel, for quicker access. The front panel also has a deeper hollow that is supposed to help cool the phone when in use.
Rather than being a major leap into the future, the new View VR headset looks like Google took a long, hard look at the View and decided to fix whatever people considered was broken. In a way, it’s partially an attempt to woo back people that may have dropped off since purchasing the first version. And the $99 price tag doesn’t hurt, either.
Google Clips: An AI Camera that Knows When to Click
The AI based camera that was launched alongside other hardware products deserves special mention. It’s almost like having an invisible photographer present in the room. It decides when the right moment is to click off a shot. Sounds a little eerie, but the AI entity knows what the right conditions are to take a photo, and it already has your entire collection on Google Photos to form the basis for these decisions.
The idea is to be able to capture candid moments that you might miss when you’re in the moment yourself, but it does come off as a sort of paparazzi device that’s recording your most private moments even when you’re unaware that it’s doing so.
The device itself is quite unassuming: a rounded square with a lens at the top and a clip on the back. But place it in any corner of the room where the family has gathered, and you’re likely to be pleasantly surprised at the shots it takes. Of course, there’s a tremendous amount of AI going on behind the scenes, but that’s where Google’s strengths shine through. Google has access to one of the largest collections of public and licensed imagery in the world, so it knows, in depth, almost every aspect of good photography; it also owns DeepMind, which it acquired a while ago to boost its AI profile. Moreover, Google’s own search and other algorithms are essentially based on early forms of AI.
As the name suggests, it’s a wearable camera that you can clip on wherever you want. The Clips camera might also be a nice addition to your living room or wherever the family tends to gather to relax. But, at $249 a pop, it’s not the cheapest option. It’s way cheaper to designate the youngest cousin or get the family’s photography enthusiast to do all the work while everyone else has a great time.
Google and the Hardware Story
Google’s move into the hardware territory has been a long time coming. And now that it’s here, it’s coming harder and faster than ever before. With its recent $1.1 billion investment in HTC’s smartphone development division and the launch of several new products, Google is telling the world that it is ready to take on Apple and Samsung.
But it’s not just Google that’s jumping on the hardware bandwagon. Microsoft got in with its Surface devices in a big way after the failed bid to nurture Nokia. Amazon has been into hardware since the launch of the Amazon Echo. And even social media companies like Snap Inc. and Facebook are looking seriously at their future in hardware.
Why this sudden mass movement into hardware?
Ironically, technology companies like Apple are trying to wean off their dependency on hardware revenues. As iPhone sales approach peak levels, Apple knows that its Services business is more critical than ever for the future growth of the company.
So, why is everyone moving into the hardware space? One plausible reason is that software companies are slowly arriving at the conclusion that they need to control the hardware side of things as well. For Microsoft, it’s about maximizing the potential of Windows 10 on home-brewed hardware. Google, on the other hand, learned the hard way through its experiences with Android. It needed more control over the Android ecosystem, which it why it started with Google-backed brands like Nexus, and then moved fully into Google-made smartphones.
This need to control the hardware and software – both sides of the product equation – is what is increasingly driving technology companies into the hardware space.
Another reason is the proliferation of AI, cloud computing and the Internet of Things, or IoT. These three segments are irrevocably intertwined. Cloud computing forms the basis of advanced AI capabilities being delivered over the Internet. In turn, AI is the foundation on which smart hardware can be built, and IoT is the vehicle that will take both these relatively new technologies to the broader commercial and consumer markets.
At this historic moment in time, when we are poised at the threshold of revolutionary technologies like self-driving cars and fully automated, intelligent homes and offices, it is vital for technology companies to embrace all three, not just cloud or just AI or IoT.
A company that makes a name for itself in forward-looking hardware today is one that is building a strong foundation under its future growth. And if you look at products like Amazon’s new lineup of Echo devices, Google’s new hardware and so on, you’ll see them as evidences of this shift within the realm of technology.
Conversely, any company that doesn’t embrace this change is going to be obsolete, sooner or later. That’s why the company behind Snapchat isn’t thinking social media anymore. That’s why Google is pushing harder than ever on AI. That’s why Amazon is betting billions of dollars on the growth of the voice-activated devices market.
This change is inevitable. Dumb cars are the past; smart, connected mobility is the future. Mute homes are history; intelligently capable “care-dwellings” that you can interact with are the future. Smartphones are the past; inherently smart mobile devices are the future.
Twenty years from now, younger adults might not even know how to operate an automobile, because they’ve never had the need to. A 20-year-old in 2040 might be truly uncomfortable using a keyboard and mouse, or even a physical touchscreen, for that matter. And the companies that can envision such a future are the ones that will live to see it.
For sure, Google wants to be on that small list of companies that will be relevant two, three or more decades down the road.