Google takes on rivals with Pixel phone; new software

Google makes a new hardware push and attempts to take on Apple with their Pixel phone, complete with a 12.3 mega-pixel rear-facing camera.
Rick Osterloh, senior vice-president of hardware at Google, introduces the Pixel Phone in San Francisco, California, Oct 4, 2016.
Rick Osterloh, senior vice-president of hardware at Google, introduces the Pixel Phone in San Francisco, California, Oct 4, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS
Sabrina Ellis, director of product management at Google, speaks about the new Pixel phone.
Sabrina Ellis, director of product management at Google, speaks about the new Pixel phone.PHOTO: REUTERS

SAN FRANCISCO (AFP) – Google opened fire on rivals Apple, Samsung and Amazon in a new push into hardware on Tuesday (Oct 4), launching premium-priced Pixel smartphones and a slew of other devices showcasing artificial intelligence prowess.

The unveiling of Google’s in-house designed phone came as part of an expanded hardware move by the US giant, which also revealed details of its new “home assistant,” virtual reality headset and Wi-Fi router system.

The San Francisco event marked a shift in strategy for Google, which is leading a major push to make Google Assistant artificial intelligence a futuristic force spanning all kinds of internet-linked devices.

Google chief executive Sundar Pichai said the new devices were part of Google’s strategy to bring artificial intelligence to a range of new devices.

“We are evolving from a mobile-first world to an AI-first world,” he said, adding that the latest push is an extension of the Google search capacity by assisting consumers in finding and organising information.

“Our goal is to build a personal Google for each and every user.”

Rick Osterloh, head of a new hardware division at the California-based internet giant, added, “We believe that the next big innovation is going to take place at the intersection of hardware and software, with AI at the centre.”

Pixel will be available with a five- or 5.5-inch display, starting at US$649 (S$890) for US customers, at similar prices to the latest iPhone models. It comes in blue, black and silver.

Pre-orders began Tuesday in Australia, Canada, Germany, Britain, and the United States.

On the Singapore market, a Google spokesman told The Straits Times: "The Pixel and Pixel XL will be available in the US, Canada, UK, Germany, Australia and India. Google plans to launch in more countries in the future, but it has no details to share at this time."

Google, by using its own name on handsets, is aiming for a bigger slice of a competitive smartphone market dominated by Samsung and Apple.

Until now, Google’s flagship devices had used the Nexus brand with hardware partners that have included China’s Huawei and South Korea’s LG. The California group also sought to expand in the smartphone market by purchasing Motorola in 2011, but sold the unit less than three years later.

“Google today demonstrated that it’s finally serious about hardware,” said Jan Dawson at Jackdaw Research. “The Pixel phones are clearly being positioned as peers to the iPhone.”

The new Pixel phone is “the first phone made by Google inside and out,” said Sabrina Ellis of the Pixel product management team.

By producing both the hardware and Android software, Google is making a more direct assault on Apple and its tightly controlled ecosystem.

Along with being the first smartphone to ship with Google Assistant, it will come with unlimited storage for photos and videos and be compatible with the company’s new Daydream virtual reality platform.

Pixel has a “smart” camera which can select the best images from a stream, and a program to make it easy for users to switch operating systems, a move aimed at winning over iPhone users.

Analyst Patrick Moorhead of Moor Insights & Strategy said it may be challenging for Google to gain market share.

“Aside from the camera, the new Google Pixels are pretty undifferentiated compared to Samsung and iPhone 7th generation phones,” Moorhead said. “They don’t exactly swing anyone around the room.”

Gartner analyst Brian Blau said that “the most exciting part of the announcement today was the assistant,” which showcases Google’s strength in artificial intelligence.

“It’s a different tactic from Google, taking the stance that they want to have that direct relationship with their customers,” Blau told AFP.

“It is clearly a step into Apple’s world” of controlling hardware and software and services, he added.

Pixel will be sold through US carrier Verizon and telecom groups, and available at Google’s online shop unlocked.

As part of its expanded hardware push, Google also showed off a new Daydream View headset that compatible smartphones can be slipped into to serve as screens for virtual reality experiences.

View headsets are made of soft cloth, purportedly inspired by casual clothes. Daydream View bundled with a controller device will be available in November, priced at US$79.

Google added to the coming hardware line-up with a modular Wi-Fi system that lets a set of inter-connected mini-modems be spread around homes to make signals strong in all spots.

“Unlike a single, central router, multiple Google Wi-Fi points do a better job of delivering connectivity to all parts of the home,” said Google executive Mario Queiroz.

The internet giant also introduced its Google Home virtual assistant that will be a direct challenge to popular Amazon Echo devices.

Google described Home as a voice-activated assistant that lets people tap into the company’s online capabilities to answer questions, manage tasks, control devices in homes, stream videos and more.

The US$129 Google Home device be available in retail shops on Nov 4.