Google is taking hardware seriously after years of
But it doesn’t have a chance at becoming another Apple
Instead, Google’s hardware division will be
used to sneak the company’s AI technology into everything
Suddenly, Google is starting to look like a hardware company.
As the holiday gadget-buying season approaches, Google’s
offerings are starting to look more like what you’d see from
Samsung or Apple, not a search giant.
It started this week with the launch of the new Pixel 2 phones,
which, despite their ugly designs and iffy screens, got largely
positive reviews. Next come a slew of new gadgets — wireless
earbuds, an attractive Chromebook, jumbo and mini versions of its
Google Home smart speaker, a GoPro-like camera, and a refined
version of its virtual-reality headset.
Google has dabbled with hardware in the past without
much success, but the company now appears to be serious about
turning it into a real business. Last year, the company put Rick
Osterloh, the former president of mobile-phone maker Motorola, in
charge of its hardware efforts. More recently, it spent more than
$1 billion to bulk up its capabilities by acquiring portions of
HTC’s phone business.
At first glance, hardware seems like a sideshow for Google
If Google now seems more serious about hardware, it hasn’t
exactly explained why it is. Almost all of its revenues still
come from advertising. The high-end phone market, in
which its new Pixel smartphones will compete, is already
saturated, giving Google little hope it can break through.
Even if it spurs broad consumer interest in the devices, Google’s
track record for meeting demand hasn’t been good. Last year it
had a dreadful time making enough of its original Pixel phones.
By some estimates, the company
sold little more than 1 million of them. On average, Apple
sells a million iPhones every few days.
In terms of its potential impact on Google’s overall sales, the
company’s hardware effort doesn’t look as if it will ever be
anything more than a small sideshow to its core search business.
But that doesn’t mean it’s unimportant.
Google sees AI as its next Android
Google hinted at why it’s putting so much effort into hardware at
its press event earlier this month when it introduced the new
Pixels and showed off its other upcoming products. The underlying
theme of that event was Google Assistant, the company’s
voice-assistant technology that competes with Amazon’s Alexa and
Google clearly sees Assistant — and AI more generally — as its
next big foundational technology, one that could soon rank up
there with its search technology and Android. And reading between
the lines of the press event, it seems clear that Google sees its
hardware effort as a kind of Trojan Horse for its AI efforts, a
way to sneak its assistant and its AI into consumers’ homes and
For all the talk in the tech industry about the new computing
devices that could replace the smartphone, such as
augmented-reality goggles and smartwatches, the software
underlying those devices will likely be more important than the
gadgets themselves. Because it’s the intelligence underlying
those devices that will truly make them sing. And among the major
tech players, Google is in the best position possible to power
these next-generation devices, because its artificial
intelligence and related “smarts” are the best in the world.
Google Assistant is only about a year old, but it’s already
proving itself more capable than older rivals, such as Siri,
Alexa, and Microsoft’s Cortana. Google’s advantage is that
Assistant can draw on the wealth of information the company has
gleaned about you from your search history, Gmail account, and
more, and that Assistant can stitch all that information together
better than any of its competitors.
Google is stuffing its hardware with AI
Google’s key challenge is to get Assistant and its related AI
technologies inside more devices and into the hands of more
consumers. Its new hardware products indicate how it plans to do
All of Google’s new products incorporate its AI technologies in
one way or another. For example, Google Clips, its new camera,
uses AI to monitor what’s happening around it to determine the
best time to take short video clips. It then transfers those
clips to Google Photos, the company’s photo-storage service,
which offers image recognition that’s constantly improving thanks
to machine learning.
Google’s also stuffed its AI into its new Pixel Buds, its
wireless earbuds that can translate languages in real time, like
something you’d see on “Star Trek.” And it’s built Assistant into
many of its other new products, including the Pixel 2 phones, its
new Home speakers, and its Pixelbook laptop.
The search giant is using its hardware to spur other device
makers to use its AI
Now that the company has added AI into its own hardware products,
its challenge is to persuade its hardware partners to adopt
its AI technology too, as they did Android last decade. But
that’s where Google’s hardware comes into play.
Google’s devices serve as benchmarks for manufacturers who build
devices that rely on Android and the search giant’s other
platforms. Assuming that’s the case here, there likely soon will
be lots of other products that include Google’s AI technologies.
You can already see this starting to play out. Regardless of the
manufacturer, all new Android phones ship with Assistant.
Manufacturers including Sony, Panasonic, and soon
Sonos are building Assistant into their smart speakers.
Google’s AI is even making its way into more mundane devices. For
instance, LG announced earlier this year that you’ll soon be able
to control its washing machines and robot vacuums via Assistant
(“OK, Google, vacuum my living room”). Down the road, the
integration of AI into such everyday gadgets and appliances
could offer the biggest opportunity for the technology.
By using its hardware to sneak its AI into your life, Google is
positioning itself to lead that revolution.
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