As is often the case with these big hardware events – the Made by Google Event was both surprising and not.
Much of what was rolled on a New York stage yesterday afternoon (Oct. 9) was anticipated and well known long before the stage presentations began: the new Pixel phone was described as “exactly as leaked,” the new Chrome Tablet forecast did make an appearance, the new Google Home hub with a screen on it was announced as anticipated.
But even without the aid of any massive hardware shocks – Google still offered some head turning new additions to line-up that indicated its increasingly expansive and ambitious plans for its growing its ecosystem of devices and services into a more central role in consumers lives – with advances in what how to interact with the home hub, what the Google Assistant can do for consumers and even in how consumers will shop for their devices.
The New Home Hub
With the release of the Amazon Echo Show last year, and its redesign announced earlier this year, the long running question has been when Google was going to offer its own screen bearing competitor to take on the show.
The world go its answer this week with the introduction of the Google Home Hub – a product described as comparing all the voice function of the Google Home smart speaker – with all the convenience of a tablet screen interface.
“For life at home, we designed a smart display so you can hear and see the info you need, and manage your connected home from a single screen,” Google’s SVP of hardware Rick Osterloh noted of the new release.
Visually, the Hub looks quite a bit like the Echo Show – though some early reviews that it lacks the aesthetic sleekness of the – or the more recently announced Facebook Portal device. The Google will be the slightly more colorful than it competition – with a speaker base in pink, white, grey, and green – but with a 7-inch screen, as opposed to the new Show’s 10-inch screen.
Diya Jolly, Google‘s VP of Product Management, said its major goal with the Hub was to make a device that’s comfortable to use in the home. To that end, the Hub won’t have a camera (unlike both the Show and the Portal) and thus will not be able to make vidoe calls. The screen will also automatically adjust to the light in the room, so that it doesn’t have a garish glow in a dimly-lit space.
The Hub, according to Jolly, is also designed to be used by multiple people and has the ability to differentiate between voices and offer personalized responses to questions.
It also offers Home View, a dashboard that shows information about all smart devices in the home, as well as offering room-specific controls, as well as a stronger integration with Nest devices, such as the smart doorbell and thermostat.
Customers were able to pre-order the new Home Hub before the event was through yesterday – it will be available in stores on October 27.
Beating the new Home Hubs to the market slightly, however, will be the only more anticipated piece of hardware announced at the Made By Google event, the newest version of it flagship Pixel phone.
The Phone That Makes Your Calls
As noted, the specs for the Pixel 3 had been multiply leaked before the event – so though the device was highly anticipated, no one was expecting any major surprises on the hardware front
Of which there were almost none – the screen is bigger, the camera has been upgraded and the device was pretty much everything the leaks indicated it would be. Google even teased yesterday’s event on Twitter by referencing the leaks – challenging consumers to come check out the new Pixel because they “only think they know” what is coming next.
The surprising side on the new Pixel was not so much what was on the outside – but instead the AI advances running on the inside designed to make the phone a more indispensable tool. In a blog post, Google called the Pixel 3 the “most helpful device in your life,” pointing out that Assistant can answer while the phone is charging and the camera is designed so that it “won’t miss a shot.”
“They come at the intersection of AI, software and hardware working together,” Hardware SVP Rick Osterloh. “This approach is what makes Google’s hardware experience so unique and it unlocks all kinds of helpful benefits.”
Particularly eye-catching among the Pixel’s new AI enhanced capacities, was the announcement that the Duplex AI feature will roll out to Pixel 3 owners next month.Duplex, among other things, will come with a call-screening and response feature that could be the end of spam calls as we know them.
Duplex can also make calls for its owner to do things like schedule appointments or navigate its way through phone queues.
To use Duplex, Google customers will be offered the option of a “Call Screen” button when their Pixel phone rings.
By tapping that button, the user allows an AI will answer calls on your behalf and explain to the caller you’re screening your calls, then it prompts them to state their name and reason for calling. It will then transcribe whatever the caller says and send their owner text message transcript with reply options like callback, ignore or even permanently block.
The new feature is slated to roll out “sometime next month” to Pixel 3 owners – though how widely available for use it will be remains to be seen.
Most reviewers have noted that Pixel is the least “beautiful” of the highline smartphone on the market, and lacks some of the design elegance the teams at Apple and Samsung have created. However those review also note that the internal AI that makes it virtually impossible to take a bad picture combined with the fact that (coming soon) it could actively protect them from ever have to talk to a telemarketer again makes Google’s phone arguably the most useful one on the market. And with a starting price tag that is $200 lower than its competitors – the Pixel is making an increasingly competitive case for itself.
But, case made, how to handle customers who persist in sitting on the fence?
Google also rolled out an idea for that.
Embracing Try Before You Buy
While the $800 Pixel Phone is less than the comparable $1,000 iPhone – $800 still isn’t cheap. In fact none of these devices and innovations are – all cost north of $100, which means they are an investment for most consumers.
How to get customers to commit to the investment? Give them a chance to test run it first.
Among the more interesting announcemetns made at the hardware event yesterday wasn’t about hardware – or software at all – but about a partnership Google has struck up with startup b8ta to create an interactive experience around its products.
b8ta stores are a bit different in that they are designed to be showrooming hubs where consumers can demoe new tech products – and now Google devices will be live at 7 of their store locations. Each in-store demo experience is modeled after the different rooms of a home — living room, kitchen, home office and so on.
“We’re excited that Made by Google products are now available in the majority of b8talocations across the country,” Google Director of Retail Marketing Janell Fischer said in a statement. “We’re always looking to make it easier for customers to try and shop our products, and this is a great example of that coming to life.”
Google took a minority stake in b8ta earlier this year – and the announce partnership on stage this week marks one of many high profile deals the firm has signed onto in 2018 alone- Macy’s and Lowes are also currently engaged in projects with the start-up.
With the event now over, Google still has some tall mountains to climb. Apple and Samsung both have high-end phone businesses that are far larger and more established, and Amazon is still the far-and-away leader in the Voice AI/Smart Home Speaker race. A lot more people are talking to Alexa these days than the Google Assistant.
But Google has made it’s intentions clear – and coming up quickly as a competitor using its smart AI voice assistant as the through line in its products line – tying the entire ecosystem together around a voice activate assistant that is quickly developing more “assistant” like functions.
Making and screening calls for example.
With its expanded offerings – particularly the now visually upgraded Home Hub – Google can help a customer do more and with the better integration of its AI across products it can make sure that its software is helping consumers wherever they happen to be, whatever they happen to be doing.
Google is not currently winning in any of the races it is running in hardware as of yet – and the competitors running ahead of it are fast and protective of their first-place sports. But Google clearly has an AI -based plan to make a move on poll position.
And it will be interesting to see how its competitors will try to keep the lead in 2019 and beyond.
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