SAN FRANCISCO – Google is taking a page from Apple’s playbook by making a bigger push to build its own hardware.
Rick Osterloh, head of Google’s new hardware group, said that in doing so, Google can take full advantage of capabilities it’s designing with artificial intelligence and machine learning. Apple has long designed both iPhone hardware and the iOS operating-system software that runs on it. Now, Google is doing the same with the upcoming Pixel phones running Google’s Android system.
The Pixel is one of several gadgets Google announced Tuesday in San Francisco.
NEW PHONE, NEW BRANDING, NEW MARKETING
Google’s previous phones, dubbed Nexus, had limited distribution.
Now, the company is casting aside the Nexus name in favour of Pixel, a brand that Osterloh said has “always represented the best of hardware and software designed by Google.”
And instead of relying primarily on online orders, as was the case with Nexus, Google will offer Pixel through Verizon as well, starting Oct. 20. Advance orders began Tuesday starting at roughly $650 for the 5-inch version and $750 for the slightly larger 5.5-inch screen. Google will also make Pixel available at Best Buy and various wireless carriers outside the U.S.
One of the advantages Google phones have long had is their quick access to Android updates. With other phones, individual manufacturers and carriers have to approve changes, resulting in delays . Google said Verizon will still have to approve updates for Pixel, but the process will be streamlined and done ahead of time.
Google promises a spectacular camera and unlimited online storage for phones at full resolution. When storage space on the phone is low, the Pixel will free up storage and rely on the online copy. Apple takes a similar approach with its iCloud Photo Library, though free storage is limited to 5 gigabytes, or a few thousand photos.
IT’S IN YOUR HEAD
Google’s new virtual-reality headset, Daydream View, will differ from other headsets like Samsung’s Gear VR in having a companion motion controller and compatibility with a wide range of phones, including Pixel.
Daydream is also a challenge to more sophisticated, but expensive systems from Facebook’s Oculus business, HTC and Sony — as well as to Google’s own Cardboard effort.
Cardboard is cheap — available for as little as $15 — but it doesn’t offer much control over VR environments beyond pushing a button on the headset as you move your head. The new wireless motion controller for Daydream can function like a fishing rod, a steering wheel or a pointer to permit more sophisticated VR experiences.
Daydream View and the controller will be out in November for $79. You’ll need a new Android phone , as existing phones won’t have the right hardware.
Google also plans to share design guidelines with other manufacturers to make Daydream headsets and controllers.
AN ECHO OF AMAZON’S ECHO
Google is promoting its new Home smart speaker as a way to access Google’s knowledge — hands free.
Home will be able to perform many of the same tasks as Echo, Amazon’s internet-connected speaker. Both will use voice commands to play music, field questions and control home appliances — assuming you’ve installed “smart” versions of them.
If you’re feeling creepy about a speaker listening to your conversations, Google says you can turn the microphone off.
Home will be available on Nov. 4 for about $130, with advance orders starting Tuesday. The cylinder-shaped Echo costs $180, though Amazon also sells a smaller version shaped like a hockey puck that sells for $50.
Google’s new video-streaming device, Chromecast Ultra, will support a higher-resolution video format called 4K. Larger, more expensive streaming devices such as the $100 Amazon Fire TV already do that. Ultra will cost $69.
Meanwhile, Google wants to improve Wi-Fi in the home by creating its own router. The company said people use internet differently now, with games, video chatting and more on various devices throughout the home. The new Google Wi-Fi system will cost about $130 for the main device. A three-pack for larger homes will cost about $300.
Even as it pushes Pixel, Google isn’t abandoning the Android system that other manufacturers can use for free. That means Samsung, LG and others can keep making their own phones with Google software.
In that sense, Google’s approach is more like Microsoft’s than Apple’s. Microsoft also has been making hardware through its line of Surface computers running Windows. That puts Microsoft — and now Google — in the awkward position of promoting both its own devices and those of rivals that run the company’s software.
Google predicts that artificial intelligence will play a greater role in our lives. CEO Sundar Pichai said computing is transitioning to an AI -first world, just as it moved to a mobile-first world just a few years ago.
“Our goal is to build a personal Google for each and every user,” Pichai said. “We want to build a Google for each user.”
Google services along those lines include Google Assistant, software that’s designed to answer questions and retrieve information, conversation-style. Google Assistant made its debut in a chat app called Allo a few weeks ago. It will also be part of Home and the new Pixel phones.
The features demonstrated Tuesday seem similar to what Amazon and Apple already offer with their virtual assistants. Google officials have repeatedly emphasized that its AI technology is in the early stages — so it remains to be seen what this new era for Google will lead to.
Anick Jesdanun reported from New York.