Google's “hardware” push is still really about its software.
On Tuesday, the technology giant unveiled a raft of new gizmos it proudly proclaimed to be #madebygoogle, including two smartphones and a smart home speaker. The message from Google is that it’s a new and gadgety dawn for the tech firm, which has floundered a bit in its hardware efforts.
But based on what the company showed off today, Google still seems far behind despite earlier serious hardware efforts. It’s easier to think of the new gadgets as follow-ups to competitor products: a competitor for Apple’s iPhone and for Amazon’s Echo speaker.
Yes, making products is hard; much harder, perhaps, than asking people to use your free websites or download your apps.
So is it too late for Google on hardware? Why should it even bother, when the smartphone world, in particular, is so crowded already?
It's true that even Google probably couldn’t just make an iPhone clone and expect instant success. But smartphones are evolving into something new. After years of trying to make phones that are the fastest, thinnest and lightest, companies now need to deliver something more to draw consumers to stores. Smartphones have essentially become a commodity, albeit a valuable one that acts as the central remote control for everything else in your life.
Google, in taking a leaf from Apple’s playbook to design both hardware and software from the ground up, gives itself a chance to break through in this second leg of the hardware relay race and lead the next one.
And for Google, the it-factor in this race is its voice-activated Google Assistant. Listening between the lines of the prepared speeches Tuesday, it seems pretty clear that Google wants to make Assistant an essential in everyone’s life. Chief executive Sundar Pichai even said, explicitly, that he sees us moving from a mobile-first world to an AI-first world.
In what was ostensibly a hardware event, the real promise of the presentations was one of a personalized Google that can answer questions about your life rather than a general query.
Type “What am I doing next week?” into regular Google search, and you might get weekend productivity tips — but not information about your next work trip. Assistant, if Google pulls it off, should be able to crawl through your calendar and give you the answer that you really need. Its conversational tone should also be able to deliver the right information, no matter what words you use to ask.
That extends beyond what Amazon’s Alexa can offer — smart as it is, that voice assistant still answers queries based on the general Web more than on your personal digital information. (Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.) And Siri, while plugged into your calendar, often doesn’t understand what you’re asking.
Plus, Assistant isn’t designed only for the smartphone. Google's decision to pair its Assistant-powered Home speaker with its Chromecast streaming dongles makes old tech new again, and responsive to voice commands for far cheaper than a new “smart” sound system or a smart TV. Assistant's many forms promises a low buy-in for homes to have the “Star Trek” computer — the voice-activated assistant — that we’ve always wanted.
For consumers, an assistant plugged into the products we already use to run our lives is a big selling point. If Google offers nice hardware that really outshine others when it comes to integration with its popular software products — Mail, Maps, etc. — it could maybe pull a reverse-Apple and lead people to their hardware through their services. (Arguably, this could also be called pulling an Amazon.)
In that sense, this hardware push isn’t about Google straying from its software roots, but rather making the right package for them.
Will it succeed? That’s a difficult thing to say, of course. But going after both an aging, changing market in smartphones and the nascent smart home industry simultaneously is smart. That means you may come into the Googleverse through the Pixel phone, but you may also fall in love with the Home and then have that lead you to the phone.
And it’s certainly true that one can lead from behind. Getting serious about a product late doesn’t necessarily mean getting counted out. Look at Apple and the iPad. Or Apple and the iPhone, for that matter.
Still, this is by no means a slam-dunk for Google. Looking at its much-anticipated Tuesday hardware event, the only thing that really stands out is still its software — which may raise questions about why they didn’t just release it as an app that works on all phones. But if Google can really make good, logical hardware, it stands a better chance than most at upending a hardware market that’s gotten a little stale.