Google took the wraps off its anticipated Pixel smartphone, but the focus of the company’s event today in San Francisco was Google Assistant – with Sundar Pichai stating that the world is moving from “mobile-first” to “AI-first”.
“In this world computing will be universally available, it will be everywhere, in the context of a user’s daily life. People will be able to interact with it more naturally and seamlessly than ever before. And above all else, it will be intelligent, it will help users in more meaningful ways,” he said.
Google Assistant is intended to act as “a personal Google for each and every user”. As an evolution of previous efforts such as Google Now, it is designed to deliver personalised information and support voice interactions and, based on use, it “continuously learns, and keeps getting better”.
Google Assistant (previously detailed at Google I/O 2016) already forms part of the company’s recently launched Allo app, and is now being rolled out further.
Pichai acknowledged that it is early days, but “we are committed to this vision and we are going to work on it for a long time”.
Google Assistant is intended to work across devices, including smartphones, home entertainment terminals, computers and cars. And this will extend Google’s control of the user experience across hardware, vendors and categories, giving it a greater grip on where the value lies.
Google also did not detail how much of Google Assistant is likely to find itself in devices made by other vendors. While at the moment it is something of a USP for Pixel, the company is likely to want it deployed as widely as possible, in order to boost its internet services proposition.
Introducing the devices part of the show, Rick Osterloh, Google’s hardware chief, said that “we believe the next big innovation is going to take place at the intersection of hardware and software, with AI at the centre. That’s where we have the biggest opportunity to bring people the very best of Google, as we intended it”.
“Hardware isn’t a new area for Google, but now we are taking steps to showcase the very best of Google, across a family of devices, designed and built by us. This is a natural step, and we are in it for the long run,” he continued.
Pixel is the first smartphone with Google Assistant built in, and Google spent much of its introduction highlighting how this works. But the company also spent a lot of time talking up its imaging capabilities, stating that its Dxomark rating of 89 is “the highest ever for a smartphone”.
Unlike recent rivals (including Apple’s iPhone 7s), the device has a single camera set-up, with 12.3MP sensor, f/2.0 aperture and “big 1.55 micron pixels”. Users are also being offered unlimited Google Photos storage for pictures, including 4K video captured with the device.
The device is also the first phone to support Google’s Daydream VR specifications.
With pricing of $649, Google is clearly aiming higher than with its Nexus devices, meaning it will be competing with Samsung in the tough premium Android space. While Google Assistant and Daydream support does give it something to stand out from the crowd, volumes are still unlikely to be enough to worry hardware-focused rivals.
Pixel is available in two sizes (5-inch and 5.5-inch), in silver, black and a US-exclusive Blue version. Preorder is open now in US, UK, Canada, Germany and Australia (India will be added on 13 October). Verizon is the exclusive US carrier while Telstra was named as the sole partner in Australia.
Another key part of the Google Assistant story is the Google Home device, an Amazon Echo-esque home entertainment and speaker system which was also showcased at I/O 2016.
In addition to streaming audio over Wi-Fi, the device can also be used to give voice access to Google Search. It can also be used to control Chromecast devices, and will integrate with home automation systems such as Nest, Samsung SmartThings and IFTTT – with more “coming soon”.
The device can be customised with different metal and fabric bases.
Available from November through US retailers, it will cost $129.
Google also showcased its Daydream View VR headset, with the standout feature being its design. Rather than the plastic bodies of rivals, it uses fabrics to create a lighter and softer headset, with the company stating that “we weren’t inspired by gadgets: we looked at what people wear”. It will be available in colours described as “slate, snow and crimson”.
In addition to Pixel, it will work with other Daydream-ready smartphones. It has an auto-alignment system, to remove the need to manage cables or connectors.
The headset and controller is set to launch in November (preorders start 20 October), costing $79. It will be available initially in the US, followed by the UK and Australia.
Today’s event was dubbed #MadeByGoogle and analysts believe the tag clearly sums up what the company wants consumers to take away from the big launch.
“No longer does Google want to be behind the scenes powering some of the experiences we treasure most,” commented IBB Consulting’s Jefferson Wang. “The company believes it is ready for its closeup and that it finally has a product lineup worthy of bearing its name and capable of showcasing its innovative services. But despite near-universal consumer acceptance and use of its services, the company still faces steep challenges in every product line it’s entering with the devices announced today.”
In phones, argues Wang, Google will have expanded, though still limited, distribution compared to other makers. In VR, it is going after an early adopter market without any runaway use cases. And in the home, it must convince users that easier access to information during certain times of the day in certain places in the home, with the promise of eventual home automation, is reason enough to buy one of its Home devices right now.
“Challenges aside, Google is uniquely advantaged in that it has the capabilities to bring elegant products to market without the pressures of needing to turn a huge profit,” he concluded. “Even if the products are loss leaders but help other services become more engrained in digital lives, the devices are doing their job.”