The cool weather was slow to show up in some parts of the U.S. this year (although the pumpkin spice-flavored goods showed up right on time). The biggest names in tech are rushing to various West Coast stages to tout their latest and greatest offerings, just in time for the holiday shopping rush to kick off in earnest.
Google was the last of the heavy hitters in this week’s lineup, following the big fall preview shows from Apple, Amazon and Microsoft. Of the four brands, Google is arguably least known for its devices – it lags behind Amazon and Samsung in the smartphone arena, and is now playing third fiddle to both Amazon and Huawei when it comes to AI-enabled smart speakers.
But even if search – and the massive amounts of advertising revenue it generates – will be Google’s primary claim to fame for the foreseeable future, it is committed to making a dent in the world of hardware, leveraging it alongside its formidable data processing abilities to develop what it called “ambient computing” during its presentations early this week.
“Our vision for ambient computing is to create a single, consistent experience at home, at work or on the go, whenever you need it,” said Rick Osterloh, Google’s head of hardware, on Tuesday (Oct. 15).
In Google’s vision, the customer won’t have to seek out its devices to use them – instead, all of those connected devices will live essentially on standby, constantly monitoring the environment for opportunities to intervene and offer assistance in context.
Moving toward that vision with its latest round of upgrades and additions, Google offered up new home devices, its latest and greatest smartphone, more information about its forthcoming gaming service and an AirPods competitor.
Google’s Smart Home: The Nest Generation
The smart home announcement that got the most immediate attention from watchers wasn’t actually a piece of hardware (though there were a few of those), but a subscription service designed to tie all of the emerging hardware together.
Called Nest Aware, the system lets users add cloud recording to their Nest camera devices for $6-$12 a month depending on much they want to record and how long it will be accessible in the cloud. Nest Aware will also put Nest Minis/Nest Hubs into a security-centric listening mode, which will enable all of the smart speakers in a consumer’s home to be always “alert” and listening for noises of interest, like smoke alarms, and to notify their users promptly.
With the latest round of upgrades, Google Home’s speakers are also continuing their migration into becoming Nest Hubs. The Nest Wifi is essentially a mashup of the Google Wifi mesh router, with its Google Home speakers now basically fulfilling both services. Those will start shipping on Nov. 4. The Google Mini has also officially been rechristened the “Nest Mini,” and it is much the same as it was before. The renamed version is now wall-mountable without any adapters, and Google claims it has a much better base. It will retail for video about $50 and will start shipping next week.
The New Phones and the Latest Pods
Consumers looking for sleek white Bluetooth headphones in a case that looks uncannily like a floss dispenser will have no shortage of choices on hand next year. Apple’s version has been around for a few years, Amazon followed suit with a comparably priced set a month ago and now it seems Google has come to the party as well – though the product won’t actually make it to market until next spring.
Details on the new hardware are thin, although the battery life is supposed to be about five hours. It remains to be seen, however, if Google’s version will, like Apple’s, only talk to its in-house personal assistant, or if Google will make a broad play similar to Amazon and allow users to tap their Pixel buds to talk to whatever voice-activated AI they choose.
While consumers are awaiting more details on that, they will at least have new Pixel phones to play with, as the fourth iteration of Google’s Android phone is set to hit the market on Oct. 24. The new phones will physically resemble their predecessors – though this time around, they will come with built-in “Soli” radar chips that will allow users to do things like switch songs, snooze alarms or silence calls by waving a hand over the phone.
The main force of the upgrades, however, seems to be the camera, which will lean further into using machine learning to improve photos instead of adding more complex lens systems. Google claims that its AI-driven approach can handle taking photos in extremely low light – so we imagine a flood of head-to-head comparisons between the iPhone 11 and the Pixel 4 should start hitting tech headlines as both new-edition phones make similar claims.
Let the Games Begin
Google also officially assigned a launch date of Nov. 19 for its video game streaming service, Stadia. The company began rolling out Stadia in March as a cloud-based alternative to gaming consoles from rivals like Microsoft and Sony. It lets users stream video games to devices like Chromecasts or Chromebooks, and includes a special controller designed by Google. Accessing the service will cost $9.99 per month.
The releases are out and the world is commenting – but the big, overriding question is whether those releases will help Google reach its buzzy new goal of ambient computing.
Certainly the interconnected theme – and the move toward subscription services to help consumers access more of their via cloud storage – has promise. The idea that consumers can use Google’s services from wherever they are with a consistent set of methods and commands is certainly smart, and makes Google a highly embedded and yet almost invisible part of customers’ lives.
The devil, however, remains in the details – and Google still has to tackle the complex and challenging task of building a critical mass of customers interested in having their whole lives run within an ever-present ecosystem. That has proven to be tough so far, since people love using Google for search but still favor Amazon and Samsung for phones, and prefer Alexa when they need voice AI.
But then, Rome wasn’t built in a day – and as Google has proven thus far, they are willing to play patiently in the long game of building a new home ecosystem.