Google Gets Aggressive With New Phones

Google ratcheted up its rivalry with Apple and Amazon by unveiling new smartphones, an internet-connected speaker that channels a digital assistant, and other gadgets the company hopes to make indispensable.

The devices announced Tuesday are part of Google’s bold move to design and sell its own hardware, instead of just supplying Android and other software for other companies to make products. Google’s previous attempts at hardware have had limited distribution and included such high-profile flops as its internet-connected Glass headgear.

This time around, Google is betting that it can design software and hardware to work seamlessly with each other. That’s an art Apple mastered over the past 15 years as it turned out finely crafted iPods, iPhones, iPads and Macs.

Borrowing another page from Apple’s book, Google is backing its expanded product lineup with the biggest marketing campaign in its 18-year history. The company isn’t disclosing how much it will spend, but made it clear the ads touting products “Made by Google” will be ubiquitous during the next few months.

“They have done some advertising in the past, but it’s never been with this kind of ‘let us take care of everything for you’ way,” Gartner analyst Brian Blau said. “This is more like Apple’s way of doing things.”

GADGETS ON PARADE

Google executives showed off a series of gadgets in rapid succession in San Francisco on Tuesday.

The new Pixel phones, starting at $650, are aimed squarely at Apple’s iPhone and could also siphon sales from the biggest manufacturer of Android-powered phones, Samsung.

Android now powers more than 80 percent of the smartphones sold around the world. But Samsung has increasingly been adding more of its own software, including its own mobile wallet, on its phones.

Analysts warned that Google’s increased emphasis on its own branded devices runs the risk of alienating Samsung, as well as LG and other longtime partners that make Android gadgets. Google, though, emphasized it still plans to work with other manufacturers, even as it tries to become a bigger player in hardware.

Meanwhile, Google’s new Home speaker represents a counterpunch to Amazon’s Echo, a similar device that has become a big hit since its release about 15 months ago. Google Home will cost $129, undercutting Echo by $50.

Google also announced a virtual-reality headset called Daydream View, a new Wi-Fi router and an update to the company’s Chromecast device for streaming video.

THE PHONE

Available in two sizes, the Pixel phones replace Google’s previous foray into smartphones with a Nexus brand introduced six years ago. Google never hailed Nexus as its own phone, but instead positioned it as an example of how it believed the Android system worked best.

In promoting the Pixels, Google highlighted a camera it says trumps the latest iPhone, a long-lasting battery and a dedicated headphone jack — a staple that Apple eliminated from the iPhones released last month. And while past Google phones primarily relied on sales through Google’s online Play store, the Pixel will also be sold by Verizon in the U.S.

Analyst Patrick Moorhead of Moor Insights & Strategy said in an email that Google was smart to emphasize the performance of the new smartphone cameras, as “consumers care about this a lot.” But he said other features in the new phones didn’t seem that much different from what Samsung and Apple have offered in their latest devices.

SMART ASSISTANT

The phones and speaker will serve as a showcase for Google’s digital helper, Google Assistant. The helper will respond to spoken questions such as “How do you remove wine stains out of the carpet?” and commands to control the volume of the television and other home appliances with internet connections.

Google Assistant escalates the company’s battle against Apple, which offers a virtual helping hand through Siri, and Amazon, whose Alexa concierge resides in Echo and other devices.

Google believes its assistant will be more knowledgeable, more personable and more versatile than the competition. Its confidence stems from the more than 70 billion facts that it has stockpiled in a database that it calls a “knowledge graph,” as well as the ability of its dominant search engine to quickly scan the web to retrieve a specific piece of information.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai boasts that the assistant will draw upon the company’s advances in artificial intelligence to deliver “a personal Google for each and every user.” The artificial intelligence programming is designed to learn more about the person using it with each interaction, according to Google.

That’s one reason why Google eventually wants the assistant on more devices, though the company currently doesn’t have plans to build directly into Android the way Siri is automatically included in Apple’s mobile software. Instead, Google will allow other device makers to include the assistant in their products if they want, beginning early next year.

“Search has been Google’s golden ticket for the past 20 years of the internet, and now they are hoping artificial intelligence will become the next golden ticket,” Blau said.

Still, while Google showed its new Assistant performing a variety of impressive tasks, Moorhead cautioned that similar services such as Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana haven’t fulfilled their early promises to ingrain themselves into people’s lives.

1 reply
  1. Joe Levin
    Joe Levin says:

    Google has launched two own-brand smartphones, the Pixel and Pixel XL, in a bid to take on Apple and its iPhone 7 head on.

    The two Android smartphones are the first to carry Google’s branding without being associated with another manufacturer and are a clear mark in the sand by the Android-maker: the fight with Apple is now on for the top premium smartphone.

    Google even went as far as to reference Apple on stage, showing a “storage full” message from an iPhone, something it said the Pixel would avoid with unlimited full resolution backups of photos and videos using Google Photos’ cloud storage.

    James Nugent, product manager for Pixel, said: “We’re putting a stake in the ground for the Android ecosystem in terms of what we think is the best from both the software and hardware point of view, which has been developed and made by Google.”

    The Google phones come in two sizes with either a 5in or a 5.5in screen, have the latest processor the Snapdragon 821 from industry leader Qualcomm, aluminium bodies and the next version of Android 7.1 Nougat.

    The Pixel smartphones also have 12 megapixel cameras with large 1.55 micrometre pixels for boosted low light performance on the back, which were awarded a rating of 89 by camera analysts DxOMark, making it the highest ranked smartphone camera to date, beating both Apple’s iPhone 7 with 87 and Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge with 88.

    For Google, however, the most important part of the Pixel phones is the new Google Assistant, which replaces Google Now and Google voice search previously available to other Android smartphones with a new integrated smart assistant.

    Nugent said: “This is the first device with Google Assistant, a conversational, contextually aware assistant that will help you through you day. You can talk to it, ask it various questions and it will provide a consistent experience throughout, as well as prompting you with information when it thinks its relevant.”

    Ana Corrales, vice president of global operations and Google Store, said: “We’re leveraging 18 years of search and evolving it into an assistant powered by machine learning and artificial intelligence that we believe will be the next wave of computing for the next 10 years or so and it will get better and better as people use it.”

    Google Assistant will be available through the familiar “OK Google” hotword, which can be said at any time, and a long press of the Pixel’s home button. But the Assistant access through the Pixel is just one of a new roster of devices Google is pushing, including a new Amazon Echo-like speaker, Google Home, and future products including tablets and smartwatches.

    Assistant will be able to answer questions, perform actions and help get things done through voice and text, learning your preferences and habits over time and pulling information from all of Google’s disparate services. Google Assistant will be the Pixel phones’ unique selling point, at least in the short term, in a very competitive market where Apple and Samsung dominate, but neither have been able to crack the useful integrated and intelligent personal assistant.

    The Pixel will also have unlimited full resolution phone backup with Google Photos, where other smartphones are limited in photo size and quality. They will be some of the first devices to feature the latest version of 4G – cat 9 LTE advanced – for the fastest possible data speeds, 4G calling and Wi-Fi calling, supported by EE as Google’s exclusive network partner in the UK.

    Google will also provide a so-called Quick Switch Adapter to import iMessages, photos, videos, contacts and other data directly from Apple’s iPhone, clearly targeting users disenfranchised with Apple’s recent efforts.

    The 5in Pixel will cost £599 with 32GB of storage or £699 with 128GB of storage. The 5.5in Pixel XL will cost £719 with 32GB of storage or £819 with 128GB of storage. Both models match the pricing of Apple’s iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus. They will be available through EE, via Google’s online store and Carphone Warehouse in the UK.

    The Pixel and Pixel XL will also be the first smartphones compatible with the Google’s new virtual reality headset called Daydream View, and a controller. The device, similar in idea to Samsung’s Gear VR accessory, is a step up from the company’s basic Cardboard viewer and represents the next phase in Google’s push for virtual reality, complete with a new minimum specification for Daydream compatible smartphones.

    Andrey Doronichev, Google’s product Manager for VR, said: “Most of the other headsets out there that are bulky, made of plastic with connectors and cables everywhere. Daydream is none of these things. It’s made of fabric, very lightweight and it feels like clothing, not like a piece of electronics.

    “Cardboard is a great way to get introduced to VR with short experiences, but we designed it without a head strap for a reason for quick, bitesize experiences. By contrast Daydream is designed for long term, high quality VR for a much more immersive and richly interactive experience.”

    Alongside the Pixel smartphones Google also launched its take on the Amazon Echo called Google Home, which represents a different in-home outlet for the company’s smart assistant.

    Home is a small speaker equipped with a series of far-field microphones capable of responding to voice commands, controlling other smarthome devices, setting timers, playing music and giving access to Google’s voice search. But Assistant goes beyond relatively simple voice recognition, and as on the Pixel smartphones, can pull personal information, schedules, the weather and other day-to-day activities. It is designed as an artificial intelligence in-home helper.

    Explaining how Home would work in day-to-day life, Gummi Hafsteinsson, product management director on the Assistant engineering team said: “The other day I was trying to cook some eggplant, so I said ‘OK Google, how do I cook an eggplant?’ It then described it to me and said I had to cook it for 25 minutes, so I just said ‘OK, Google, set a timer for 25 minutes’ and it was done. I didn’t have to touch anything, because my hands are busy doing something in the kitchen, and I can just get it to play music while I wait.

    “The long-term vision is for the assistant be available wherever you need it, not just on your phone. In your home, your car, wherever. For now, it’s just the new phone from Google and the Home,” added Hafsteinsson.

    Google Home will be released in the US in the near future, but the company has yet to announce release details for the UK. Google also launched an updated version of it’s instant smart TV dongle, the Chromecast Ultra, which supports 4K streaming and will cost £69.

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