Pixie Dust

Did Google Sprinkle Enough Magic on Its New Products?

At a company event held in New York City on Tuesday, Google unveiled a series of new and updated hardware products. As is often the case these days, accurate leaks and persistent rumours limited surprises. Although reactions to the products were generally muted, Google is designing its hardware to be an extension to its personalised and highly polished services. The company’s core business is still what’s behind the curtains, and its devices are being developed as impressive gateways to those services.

The event centred around Google’s latest generation of Pixel smartphones, the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL. The Pixel line has been around for two years, and despite the incredible value of the Google brand, the company has made limited progress in gaining market share. We estimate that it has shipped about 6 million phones since launching the range in October 2016, and that its global market share is well under 1 percent. Despite this, Google is in a fortunate position of having deep pockets to support continued development, and for now, it also appears to have patience. We note that Google spent more than $1.1 billion in 2017 to buy the HTC unit that developed much of Pixel hardware.

The new smartphones follow industry trends in getting bigger and more expensive. The Pixel 3 has a 5.5-inch display and the XL version has a 6.3-inch display. This compares with the five- and six-inch display models Google released in 2017. The new phones have starting prices of $799 and $899 respectively, up from $650 and $850 for those released a year ago. Although Google is following rivals in raising prices and expanding screen sizes, its new phones still only have one rear-facing camera. Despite this, Google proved that a lot can be done without upping the camera count. Instead of adding more lenses, the handsets offer advanced imaging algorithms that exploit Google’s assets in artificial intelligence along with a dedicated imaging processor co-developed with Intel, called Visual Core.

The phones introduce imaging modes including Top Shot, which takes a burst of photos before and after users press the shutter; Night Sight, which takes relatively clear pictures in the dark (Google took a shot at the iPhone XS when comparing night photos); and Photobooth, which supports intelligent hands-free capture of selfies by detecting smiles and facial expressions. The front-facing cameras also offer a “groupie” mode, zooming out to capture what Google said was 184 percent more of the scene. The company demonstrated other impressive features including an advancement of its Lens technology, which recognises objects in a photo and even translates text, and a technique to create higher-resolution photos by merging several shots.

Perhaps the most pragmatic new tool is Google’s Call Screen capability. This allows Google Assistant to answer dubious incoming calls, asking what the call is about. Call Screen will then transcribe the response on the fly, allowing users to read any response. In this day of spoofed numbers and constant spam calls, this will be a welcome feature. Google stressed security during the announcements, introducing a chip called Titan M that offers enterprise-level security.

Google also added wireless charging to the new Pixel devices and revealed a charging accessory called Pixel Stand that charges the phone and holds it up, turning it into a type of smart display.

On the subject of smart displays, another widely expected announcement was a smart screen to compete with Amazon’s Echo Show (as well as Facebook’s Portal, strategically announced the day before this event), and a more advanced way to interact with Google’s smart assistant in the home. For this, Google introduced Home Hub, a device with a seven-inch screen that can be used in places where audio isn’t enough, like in a kitchen when looking up recipes. Home Hub can double as an intelligent digital picture frame, pulling in good shots and filtering out others. The device has no camera, so it can’t be used for video calls, but this adds a level of comfort for users. Home Hub recognises individual voices for tailor-made responses. It’s priced at $149.

Google also launched a tablet running Chrome OS, which is in contrast to Android tablets. Called the Pixel Slate, the $599 device sports a 12.3-inch screen and can be turned into a “two-in-one” with an optional keyboard.

Overall, Google gave an impressive technology display, tying together its hardware with its well-entrenched services. It wasn’t always easy to tell where the hardware ended and its services began. Like other smartphone makers, the company appears to be experiencing peak innovation, building on its products from 2017 with notable but linear upgrades. It might have kept pace with its hardware rivals, but it hasn’t outrun them. We don’t doubt Google is serious about its hardware business, which has the potential to offer a great deal of data support to its larger business of personalising the Internet for everyone, but it will need a bit more pixie magic to alter the market.