Google vies to make smarter phones
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.