Google vies to make smarter phones

Pretoria News Weekend - - NEWS -

GOOGLE’S up­grades to its Pixel smart­phones and other gad­gets are its lat­est steps to­ward turn­ing its dig­i­tal ser­vices into your back-up brain.

The prod­ucts the com­pany un­veiled this week are packed with ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence Google has ac­cu­mu­lated from those same ser­vices. The com­pany’s widely used search en­gine, Gmail, maps, Chrome web browser and other ser­vices have yielded a foun­tain of data the com­pany has used to smarten up its soft­ware and gad­gets.

Over the past year, Google has been trans­plant­ing that knowl­edge into its Pixel line of phones, in­ter­net-con­nected speak­ers and, as of Wed­nes­day, a new type of lap­top and a small, hands-free cam­era that au­to­mat­i­cally learns when to snap pic­tures or record video of can­did mo­ments.

“All that hard­ware is just hous­ing, and that isn’t as in­ter­est­ing as what’s in­side the house,” said Gart­ner an­a­lyst Tuong Nguyen. “The hard­ware is just a way for Google to show peo­ple the best way to ex­pe­ri­ence its ser­vices.”

Google re­cently sig­nalled a long-term com­mit­ment to its own phones by spend­ing $1.1 bil­lion (R15bn) to bring on board 2 000 HTC engi­neers spe­cial­is­ing in mo­bile de­vices – and to ac­quire some re­lated tech­nol­ogy, too.

Although sleekly de­signed, Google’s Pixel phones and Home speak­ers aren’t break­throughs in them­selves. In many re­spects, Google is sim­ply copy­ing or of­fer­ing vari­a­tions on de­vices made by Ap­ple and Ama­zon.

But Google be­lieves its ser­vices, par­tic­u­larly those driven by AI, can give it an edge over its ri­vals. If its de­vices catch on, they’ll then gen­er­ate ad­di­tional data that Google can use to fur­ther re­fine its AI sys­tems.

Al­ready part of Google’s smart­phones and speak­ers, the as­sis­tant will soon also be fea­tured in the new Pix­el­book lap­top and in new wire­less head­phones called Pixel Buds. It will be eas­ier to sum­mon in the next gen­er­a­tion of Pixel phones; a new fea­ture lets you squeeze the side of the de­vice to ask a ques­tion.

Google’s em­pha­sis on its as­sis­tant is part of a bat­tle with Ap­ple’s Siri and Ama­zon’s Alexa to prove which is the most in­tel­li­gent and ef­fi­cient aide – one that might, one day, be­come a trusted com­pan­ion.

The sec­ond gen­er­a­tion of Google’s Pixel phones un­veiled on Wed­nes­day fea­ture larger, brighter screens that take up more of the de­vice’s front, changes that Ap­ple is also mak­ing. Both the 6-inch Pixel XL and the 5-inch Pixel will also do away with the head­phone jack. And Google souped up the al­ready highly rated cam­era on the Pixel, boast­ing that it will take even bet­ter pho­tos than the iPhone.

The Pixel 2 and Pixel XL 2 are adding a new mode for tak­ing por­traits, another pop­u­lar fea­ture on the iPhone 7 and re­cently re­leased iPhone 8. But in­stead of re­ly­ing on two cam­eras to take bet­ter por­traits, Google is us­ing AI soft­ware that ad­justs pho­tos au­to­mat­i­cally to en­hance close-ups and blur back­grounds.

The smaller Pixel will sell for $50 less than the iPhone 8 while the Pixel XL will sell for $50 more than the iPhone 8 Plus.

As for the Pixel Buds: in ad­di­tion to re­lay­ing au­dio from the phone, the wire­less head­phones can also trans­late spo­ken lan­guage in real time, work­ing with trans­la­tion soft­ware built into the new Pix­els. The fea­ture also will be com­ing to last year’s Pixel mod­els in an up­date.

Another new photo fea­ture, called Lens, will au­to­mat­i­cally dis­play in­for­ma­tion about a land­mark or piece of art in a pic­ture. This will also be added to last year’s Pixel mod­els as Google tries to build brand loy­alty.

The com­pany, a sub­sidiary of Alphabet Inc, still has a long way to go be­fore mak­ing a sig­nif­i­cant dent in the mar­ket. In the past year, Google sold just 2.8 mil­lion Pixel phones, ac­count­ing for less than 1% of the world­wide mar­ket, ac­cord­ing to the re­search firm In­ter­na­tional Data Corp.

So far Pixel buy­ers have been “fan­boys and fan­girls who un­der­stand and ap­pre­ci­ate what Google brings to the ta­ble with An­droid, and take ad­van­tage of ev­ery new fea­ture”, said IDC an­a­lyst Ra­mon Lla­mas. That may well change. – AP

Peo­ple com­pare Google phones dur­ing a launch event in San Fran­cisco, Cal­i­for­nia.

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