Google Is Finally Getting Serious About Hardware. Here's Why

The brief history of Google’s forays into mobile hardware goes something like this

Sergey Brin and Larry Page.
Picture: Reuters/Stephen Lam/AP/Seth Wenig
Sergey Brin and Larry Page.
  • In the beginning – circa 2007, at the dawn of the mobile era – Google vowed it would not make hardware, preferring to let a vast ecosystem of Android device makers thrive.
  • Four years later, Google did a dramatic, $12.5 billion U-turn, moving aggressively into hardware with its acquisition of Motorola Mobility. That period lasted just two years.
  • In early 2014, then-CEO Larry Page said Google didn’t want to be in the hardware business after all, and sold off Motorola to Lenovo for $2.9 billion (though it kept Motorola patents worth billions). “The smartphone market is super competitive, and to thrive it helps to be all-in when it comes to making mobile devices,” Page wrote at the time. Google wasn’t all-in, so it would be all out. For a little while. It turned out that this new, hardware-free period would be even shorter.
  • Last year, Google reversed course one more time, launching its widely acclaimed Pixel phones and entering the smart-speaker race with Google Home.

Now, Google is showing all the signs of planning to be in the hardware and consumer-electronics business for the long haul. Last month, it agreed to spend over $1 billion to acquire some 2000 HTC engineers who made the Pixel, buying itself a top-notch hardware team. Two weeks later, at a San Francisco event, Google introduced an impressive array of hardware products, including new Pixels, new high-end and low-end Home speakers, a new AI-powered camera, a new AI-powered set of wireless headphones, a high-end Chromebook laptop (along with Google Assistant-powered stylus) and an updated set of VR goggles.

“It'll take a long time for us to build the capabilities to be global consumer-electronics company, but it's definitely something that we want to do,” Rick Osterloh, who heads Google’s hardware group, told me during an interview following the product introductions.

An interesting question is: why now? Google doesn’t come right out and say it, but my sense is that for the first time in its history, Google believes it can make hardware that’s simply better than what its rivals are selling.

Say what? Isn’t the iPhone X likely to be the most capable smartphone on the market when it comes out later this month? Probably. Won’t Apple’s HomePod, expected in December, sound better than other smart speakers out there, including Google's high-end Home Max? Perhaps. Doesn't Google's new Clip camera have to prove itself before it can be a credible rival to, say, GoPro cameras? Certainly.

But that’s not the point. Hardware differences will continue to exist. In some areas, Apple will continue to be better. In others, Samsung or LG or GoPro will excel.

We’re moving into an era where, more than ever before, devices are simply a vehicle for user experiences. And increasingly, the best and most interesting experiences are being powered by artificial intelligence and machine learning. Those are areas where Google has long been a leader and where Apple, notably, lags.

Software, of course, has always been an integral part of a device's user experience. But in recent years, the gap in software, especially between Android and iOS, has closed significantly. At the same time, following years of improvements, premium hardware components have become available to every top-of-the-line device maker, making differentiation increasingly difficult.

The dramatic progress in AI and machine learning over recent years created a massive new opportunity to stand out from the crowd -- the first such opportunity in years. Google knew it had an edge, and CEO Sundar Pichai moved quickly to exploit it. (See my Forbes cover story from 16 months ago, Google's Bold Move To Reinvent Every Device On The Planet.)

The products Osterloh unveiled on October 4 are among the first visible results of Pichai's AI bet -- at least when it comes to hardware.

“We think some of the most interesting activity is happening at the intersection of AI software and hardware, where you can create truly differentiated and interesting user experiences by combining those elements,” Osterloh told me after the announcements.

Take Google’s new Pixel Buds wireless headphones. They have much to prove – especially if they’re going to be worthy competitors to Apple’s well-reviewed and popular AirPods. But the Pixel Buds already dazzled with something that neither Apple, nor anyone else for that matter, can do: simultaneous translation between 40 languages. The on-stage demo, which you can watch here, showcased flawless translation between English and Swedish, and was likely the most jaw-dropping moment in Google's event.

Not as startling, but impressive none-the-less, was the demo of Google Home Max, a high-end smart speaker designed to compete with Apple’s HomePod. With neither on the market, comparing them on sound quality is impossible. But the Home Max comes with the Google Assistant, the most capable digital assistant on the market. What's more, it's equipped with something called Smart Sound, which allows the speaker to adapt its output to other sounds in the room, say, by playing louder if a dishwasher is running nearby.

When I asked Osterloh to name his favorite new Google device, he gave me the obligatory “I love all my children” line. Then he singled Home Max as one of the children he's most excited about. "It's a really interesting, innovative product," he said. "It not only combines our Assistant work, but all of the stuff we've done on Smart Sound where it adjusts to the room dynamics and changes the sound levels based to really match the room. I think it's a terrific experience.” Google’s AI is behind that experience too.

In fact, Google is pushing AI pretty much everywhere it can. It built its Assistant directly into the new Pixelbook, as well as into its accompanying Pen. You can use it to circle an image on the screen, only to have the Assistant recognize it and instantly deliver information about it. Google's AI capabilities also take center stage in the Clip, a new camera that activates itself to take images and videos when it detects something interesting -- say, your kid smiling or doing a cartwheel -- in its field of view.

And of course, AI is a big part of what made the Pixel one of the best reviewed phones on the market. Its top of the line camera is not the result of Google's superiority in optics or sensors. It's the result of its software and AI prowess. And it gave Google the confidence to build the Pixel 2 with just one camera, rather than two, as in top-performing camera phones from Apple, Samsung and others. While Google's decision is sure to be criticized, the Pixel 2's camera topped all other smartphone cameras, including that of the iPhone 8, in at least one important survey from DxOMark. (The iPhone X, which has not yet been released, is yet to be rated by DxOMark.)

“There's quite a few trade-offs that come with a second camera,” Osterloh said. “We felt like could achieve the same things without it. We've done that through a full system design that we think is pretty interesting. The imager on the rear-facing camera is a dual pixel imager, which allows us to get two different perspectives, even with one camera. And that allows us to create things like a depth map, which is very helpful in creating portrait mode or also understanding different zoom levels and being able to focus on different points in the field of view. We also have amazing algorithms with what we call HDR+ that allow us to composite many different images into one, and then that gets us these great pictures in mixed light or low-light situations."

Then he added: “It's not like having two cameras is purely a hardware-driven thing. Everyone has computations that they're doing when they blend two images together. So, we're just doing that with less hardware, because our software is substantially superior.”

For all its AI chops, Google faces phenomenal challenges before it can become a major player in consumer electronics. For starters, it needs to prove it can scale production of its devices. Last year, it failed to make enough Pixels to meet demand. This year, it promises to do better, but it won't say how many it expects to sell.

If it reaches scale, it risks irking its vast family of hardware partners, most notably Samsung, who rely on Android and ChromeOS to power their gadgets. That's why Googlers up and down the ranks are careful not to compare the company's devices to those of its partners. "Each OEM has their own strengths, market and viewpoint of where they want to invest," another Google hardware exec told me. "We want want the best experience for all of our users." In other words, for users who buy Google devices and for those who run Google software and services on third-party hardware.

But the reality is that after years of investments in AI, Google is sitting on an embarrassment of riches in terms of tech. And hardware is how it gets much of that tech into the hands of consumers. Says Osterloh: “The principal reason [we make hardware] is we think it's going to be one of the best vehicles to demonstrate what we can do with all of our technology.” What it can do, and what Google believes no one else can.

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