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
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 new 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
At first glance, hardware seems like a sideshow for Google
But if Google now seems more serious about hardware, it hasn’t
exactly explained why it is. Almost all of its of its revenues
still come from advertising. The high-end phone market,
where its new Pixel smartphones will compete, is already
saturated, giving Google little hope it can break
Even if it is able to spur broad consumer interest in
the devices, Google’s track record for meeting demand hasn’t
been good. Last year, for example, it had a dreadful time making
enough of its original Pixel phones. By some estimates, the
sold little more than 1 million of them. To put
that in perspective, Apple sells about 1 million iPhones every
few days, on average.
In terms of its potential impact on Google’s overall sales, the
company’s hardware effort doesn’t look like 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 artificial intelligence 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 lives.
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 make 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 stitches 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 just that.
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
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 convince its hardware partners to adopt
its AI technology too, just like they did Android last decade.
But that’s where Google’s own 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
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
Google’s AI is even making its way into more mundane devices. For
example, 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 artificial intelligence into such everyday
gadgets and appliances could offer the biggest opportunity for
By using its hardware to sneak its AI into your life, Google
is positioning itself to lead that revolution.
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