Google's new gadgets come with a big helping of AI

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Alphabet Inc's Google has unveiled the second generation of its Pixel smartphone along with new voice-enabled home speakers, redoubling its commitment to the hardware business as it competes with a surge of devices from Apple Inc and Inc.
Google's Matt Vokoun, introduces the new Google Pixelbook. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SAN FRANCISCO (NYTimes, Reuters)- Google's unveiling of new smartphones, smart speakers and other gadgets had all the makings of a typical technology product launch: a fawning crowd of superfans, sceptical journalists, slick product videos, not-so-subtle jabs at the competition, and overly romanticised descriptions of design choices, colours and materials.

But one nagging question lingered for Google, which makes nearly all of its money from selling online advertisements: Is it finally serious about making devices?

On Wednesday, Google did its best to demonstrate its commitment.

Google's new products, including a Pixelbook laptop, wireless earbuds that allow for instant translation and a small GoPro-like camera, showcase Google-developed operating systems and services, notably the voice assistant. That means usage of those devices should stoke the company's core ad sales business as buyers of the hardware use Google services like search and maps.

But Google's pitch for why its hardware is different had little to do with the hardware itself.

Unlike the way an Apple event is conducted - usually chock-full of talk about chip speeds and screen resolutions - Google didn't spend much time on product specifications. Instead, its focus was on artificial intelligence.

Sundar Pichai, Google's chief executive, spent the first 10 minutes explaining how artificial intelligence was helping Google Maps and its translations.

Pichai said that as an "AI first" company, this is a "unique moment in time" for Google to combine hardware, software and artificial intelligence.

"It's radically rethinking how computing should work," he said.

Google executives said it has been getting harder to find new hardware breakthroughs like bigger and better screens, but they believe that significant improvements will come from artificial intelligence software that is developing at a faster clip than physical components.

Rick Osterloh, Google's senior vice president of hardware, compared the company's strategy for building devices to search and e-mail.

  • Google's gadgets

  • Pixelbook

    Pixelbook, priced at US$999 (S$1362), is the first laptop powered by Google Assistant and will support Snap Inc's Snapchat, the company said.
    The keyboard folds behind the screen to turn the 12.3-inch touchscreen into a tablet. It will be available in US stores from Oct 31.

  • Google Home Mini

    Google Home Mini, one of the new speakers, is priced at US$49 in the United States and would rival Inc's popular Echo Dot. It will be available in the US from Oct 19. The Home Max, with dual woofers for more powerful sound, is priced at US$399 and with availability by the end of the year.
  • Pixel Buds

    Pixel Buds, which are priced at US$149, will hit the stores in November. It can deliver audio from a smartphone and also include the Google Assistant and real-time translation. A demonstration at the event included a two-way conversation with one person speaking English and the other Swedish.

  • Pixel Smartphone

    Google's first smartphone debuted a year ago, with analysts estimating sales of more than 2 million, pushing Google to record amounts of non-advertising revenue. Google also introduced a US$249 product called
    Google Clips, a small, lightweight camera that pairs with its Pixel smartphones. It can be clipped to tables, chairs or a mantle and snaps pictures that can be stored in the Google Photos app or on the device.

Google was not the first search engine, and Gmail was hardly the first free web-based email provider - but both services reimagined what those products should do.

Last year, the company started its "Made By Google" line of hardware products, headlined by the Pixel smartphone. The handset received positive reviews, but it did not threaten the premium smartphone dominance of Apple or Samsung.

On Wednesday, Google demonstrated how every hardware product had received an AI makeover.

The Pixel smartphones come with an image-recognition app called Lens that can help users find information just by pointing a camera at a movie poster or an ad. The new "smart speaker" uses artificial intelligence to adjust its sound for the layout of a room. And new wireless headphones allow for instant translation of different languages.

The question of Google's commitment to hardware is a testament to the challenges of competing against devices made by Apple, Amazon and Samsung.

Most other companies have found it hard to turn a profit in that product fight, and a flop can follow a company around for years - both in money and reputation lost.

It is also a recognition of Google's history of fits and starts with devices. The company once acquired Motorola, only to sell it a few years later to Lenovo. It bought Nest and Dropcam, but the introduction of new products from those home device companies seemed to stagnate after they joined Google, now operating under the parent company, Alphabet.

Whether Google's device push sticks over the long haul remains to be seen, but its checkbook for hardware is still open.

Last month, Google said it had agreed to acquire a team of 2,000 engineers from the Taiwanese manufacturer HTC for US$1.1 billion (S$1.5 billion). The hardware-focused personnel came from an HTC research and development division that was already working with Google to create the Pixel phones. Google said the acquisition will allow it to move faster in its efforts to develop new features for smartphones.

The deal is expected to close, pending regulatory approval, early next year.

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