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Google Pixel: Devices are a dangerous distraction from the new AI interface

Pick a partner, eat the Nougat, feel the love

Analysis There was a distinct whiff of the retro about Google’s launch of its Pixel smartphone. Exclusives with selected large mobile operators; yet another attempt to create a unified Android experience; even the clear focus on Apple as the primary competition – all these should be issues of the past.

"Premium is a very important category," Hiroshi Lockheimer, head of Android, said in an interview. "It’s where Apple is also very strong. Is there room for another player there? We think so."

This is the wrong target in a world where the new web experiences are being driven by Facebook rather than Apple. Of course, Apple has huge smartphone power, but that is starting to wane, and the way to weaken it further is not to copy tactics which go right back to the original iPhone, but to shift the terms of debate.

Google’s heavy focus on its virtual assistant software, the heart and soul of Pixel and other devices, may do that – at least it shows the search giant playing to its strengths and seeking to drive the next generation of web user experiences as it did the current one. But that does not require Apple-like devices, or indeed Google hardware devices at all.

Launching the devices, Google said they were “bringing hardware and software design together under one roof”. It seems that the firm cannot resist trying to be an integrated hardware/software provider like Apple, even though it has seen how difficult and ultimately self-defeating that quest is – with its own purchase and sale of Motorola and its disappointing Android One platform; and with the debacle of rival Microsoft’s acquisition of Nokia’s handset business.

With the Google Nexus devices, at least it kept some of its biggest OEMs within the fold, letting them take it in turns to make and co-brand the products – and anyway, Nexus largely exists as a showcase for the "optimal" implementation of Android, to encourage developers and power users, and to push OEMs away from their own Android skins.

That has been the biggest challenge of the Android journey – the battle to keep an open source platform, in which many large OEMs are competing for position with differentiated implementations, from fragmenting so far that it damages developer trust and consumer experience.

The latest attempt to impose unity on Android

The Pixel phones run a new version of Android, called Nougat 7.1, and have a user interface customized by Google. The Android update will be available for other Android partners, but as always, users will only receive the updates which are selected by the OEMs.

Despite a couple of years of increasing convergence between Chrome OS and Android, the two operating systems were not merged for the Pixel, but the smartphone has received one of Chrome’s distinctive features, continual OS updates.

This is Google’s latest attempt to create a unified experience – this time by making a fully fledged hardware push of its own rather than by securing consensus among its OEMs through wheedling or bullying. On the dark side, this sees Google alienating its largest vendor partner, Samsung, by competing directly with it, and doing so by adopting many of the tactics of Samsung’s real handset arch-rival Apple.

On the plus side, Pixel does genuinely represent a big step forward for the Android platform and for the web experience which Google must define if it is to retain its core source of power.

The real highlight—AI interface

Front and centre in the Pixel launch are two key elements – Google Assistant, powered by an artificial intelligence engine, no doubt based on the company’s Deep Mind technology; and a new Daydream Virtual Reality (VR) headset, to be given away free with the phone (the first to be compatible).

Assistant is a more powerful version of Google Now, the software and cloud framework that competes with Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, as well as Amazon’s Echo in the home. The new Pixels will be the first phones to feature Assistant, and will show off Android to the fullest extent of the OS – as Google intends.

The Assistant, and the AI software which lies behind it, is the most significant element of the launch. This is the "conversational interface" which Google, Microsoft and others believe will replace the current text and mouse inputs and provide the first step towards the fully intuitive Tactile Internet. Voice and gestures instead of keywords, intelligent chatbots to support users, massive AI engines to return ever more accurate and personalized responses to natural language questions – these are the keynotes of the new web and search experiences, and every major web player knows it needs to lead the way in order to retain its influence and stand the best chance of monetizing the new conversations.

The Pixel, the Chromecast TV dongle, the OnHub Wi-Fi router and its new successor (see separate item), are all being brought under a single interface with the smartphone at its heart, and Google’s AI engine in control of all online activities from home to office, from car to phone.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai said: "When I look at where computing is heading, I see how machine learning and artificial intelligence are unlocking capabilities that were unthinkable only a few years ago. This means that the power of the software really matters for hardware more than ever before. The last 10 years have been about building a world that is mobile-first, turning our phones into remote controls for our lives. But in the next 10 years, we will shift to a world that is AI-first, a world where computing becomes universally available — be it at home, at work, in the car, or on the go — and interacting with all of these surfaces becomes much more natural and intuitive, and above all, more intelligent."

Daydream VR differentiates Pixel

Meanwhile, Daydream firmly treads on Samsung’s Gear VR line. While Google and VR have mixed before with Cardboard, the absolute entry-level VR device, and YouTube’s VR content, the new $79 Daydream View headset notably undercuts Samsung.

With a fabric cover, available in three shades, this is essentially a means of strapping a phone to your face and immersing yourself in VR content. With a remote control that can be stored inside the headset when not in use, Daydream does enable interactive experiences in a way that Gear VR currently can’t. Launch apps include a Harry Potter tie-in, with the remote being a wand, and an assortment of less notable games. Daydream support is coming to Google Play Movies, Photos, and Maps’ Street View.

A variety of other attractions have been included in Pixel - unlimited cloud storage; the recently announced AI-based apps, like Show and Tell, which correctly captions all photos automatically; a decent top end camera; an AMOLED screen at current 2K resolutions in the larger of the phones. In other words, this is positioned as a flagship phone to sell in high volume, not, like Nexus, just to demonstrate the power of Android.

Fragmentation or angry OEMs?

That brings Google head to head with its own OEMs. The firm has always had a rather strained relationship with smartphone vendors, thanks to its decision to place the onus for Android security and feature updates on these manufacturers and the carriers. Consequently, Google has completely lost control of the ability to effectively push updates to the billions of Android phones out there.

By comparison, Apple has such a tight grip on its upgrade process that new versions of iOS make it to the majority of its phones within half a year. According to Statista, some 34 per cent of iPhones are already running iOS 10, within a month of its launch, with 61 per cent on using iOS 9. Only 4.8 per cent are using an older version of iOS. With Android, at the beginning of September, fewer than 0.1 per cent are running the latest version of Android (Nougat). Some 19 per cent are using Marshmallow (Android 6, launched November 2015), with 35 per cent on Lollipop (Android 5, November 2014), and 28 per cent on KitKat (Android 4, October 2013). Even Jellybean has around 15 per cent market share, and that was launched back in 2012.

Consequently, Google can’t really represent a unified brand image for Android, and can’t introduce new features across the board – as the users typically don’t have the ability to upgrade to the newest version of the OS, and are stuck waiting on carriers and manufacturers.

This was the reality that led to the Nexus line from Google, manufactured in partnership with OEMs and meant to act as flagships for the OS – without treading on toes by stealing sales. The new Pixel line is something of a large boot with which Google could shatter a few manufacturer metatarsals should it want to.

Starting at $649 for the 5-inch variant (the 1080p Pixel), with the 5.5-inch Pixel XL costing $749 (with a larger 1440p screen) the two phones are available in either 32GB or 128GB options, with just three colors. Verizon is the exclusive US carrier, but unlocked phones can be bought via Google’s website. Assembled by HTC, each house a Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 SoCs, the OLED screens and 4GB of RAM. However, while these are confrontational devices, they don’t feature some of the more powerful features of their flagship rivals, like waterproofing, dual-SIM configurations, or wireless charging.

Google Assistant comes to the smart Home

Google’s Home hub, essentially a cheaper rival to Amazon’s Echo (something of a surprise success for the retailer), was also on-stage at the launch. Costing $130, the same as the newly rebranded Google Wi-Fi home Wi-Fi-meshing access point, Home aims to bring Google’s services inside the household – hopefully generating more advertising revenue for Google, and ensnaring more users in its ecosystem.

While the underlying framework of smart home devices and ecosystems is still something of a mess across the board, with standards and walled gardens still not yet resolved or settled upon, Google has launched with Nest and Samsung-owned SmartThings as prominent partners.

Nest is still in chaos, but still sells a very nice thermostat and capable IP cameras, but SmartThings is a very sensible move for Google – as it is one of the most extensive smart home platforms on the market, and able to cater for just about every need that most users could find in a smart home. As of now, Home is only available in the US, and will ship in November.

Copyright © 2016, Wireless Watch

Wireless Watch is published by Rethink Research, a London-based IT publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter delivers in-depth analysis and market research of mobile and wireless for business. Subscription details are here.

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