Google in 2017

MICHAEL SI­MON looks at the firm’s hits and misses

Android Advisor - - Contents -

After jump­ing head first into the hard­ware game last year with the Pixel phones and Home smart speaker, Google se­ri­ously picked up the pace in 2017. Not only were there two awe­some new Pixel phones, but also smaller and larger Google Home de­vices, as well as a pair of Pixel-branded ear­buds. And through it all, Google’s AI-pow­ered As­sis­tant got smarter and smarter.

But it wasn’t all smooth sail­ing. Google took its share of lumps over the past 12 months, and proved that mak­ing great hard­ware isn’t as easy as it looks. Here are all the hits and misses in 2017:

Hit: Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL

The Pixel phone was one of the best An­droid phones of 2016, and the Pixel 2 is just as good, if not bet­ter. The Pixel 2 XL has a big­ger screen and slimmed-down de­sign, and both mod­els have bet­ter chips and bat­ter­ies. But you need look no fur­ther than cam­era to see how Google has re­ally set its hand­sets apart from the pack.

Un­like the Galaxy Note 8 and LG V30, there’s a sin­gle cam­era on the Pix­els, but it does the work of two, with ex­cel­lent zoom and spec­tac­u­lar por­traits. And you don’t need to spring for the more ex­pen­sive model to reap the ben­e­fits, like some other com­pa­nies make you do.

Miss: Pixel prob­lems

The Pixel 2 XL is a fan­tas­tic phone, but its re­lease wasn’t with­out its prob­lems. First there were dis­play is­sues, with some users com­plain­ing about dull colours, im­age re­ten­tion, and an ag­gres­sive blue tint. Google kind of reme­died those is­sues with a soft­ware up­date and a war­ranty ex­ten­sion, but other prob­lems con­tin­ued to crop up: click­ing noises com­ing from the re­ceiver, ran­dom re­boot­ing, and poor au­dio record­ing qual­ity, to name a few. With such in­tense com­pe­ti­tion among An­droid phones, it put a damper on what should have been a stel­lar launch.

Hit: AI/ma­chine learn­ing

Google As­sis­tant only just turned one, but it’s al­ready smarter than most adults. As­sis­tant learned a ton of new skills in 2017, in­clud­ing how to make calls and dis­tin­guish be­tween voices, but user friendly fea­tures are just part of Google’s AI push. AI and Ma­chine Learn­ing were the buzz­words of 2017’s I/O con­fer­ence, where Google demon­strated a mo­bile ver­sion of its Ten­sorFlow neu­ral net­work, which will let an AI en­gine run on your phone to make AI apps smarter, faster, and more se­cure. Google is al­ready way ahead of Ap­ple and oth­ers with As­sis­tant, and now it’s just show­ing off.

Miss: Google Home Mini lis­ten­ing too much

While there are ben­e­fits to AI-pow­ered phones and speak­ers, there are some se­ri­ous detri­ments as well. Chief among them is pri­vacy. That is­sue reared its ugly head with pre­view units of Google Home Mini. One early re­viewer found that his model was record­ing ev­ery­thing he said, whether or not it was pre­ceded by, ‘OK, Google’. Google blamed it on a faulty touch con­trols that was al­ways de­pressed and thus al­ways lis­ten­ing, and re­sponded by per­ma­nently dis­abling the but­ton on all Mini units. But it’s still a re­minder of the fine line be­tween creepy and con­ve­nient.

Hit: Google Lens

Google Lens can ex­tract email ad­dresses and URLs from photos, drop­ping them straight into Google As­sis­tant. In 2016, Google gave its AI en­gine a voice

and in 2017 it got eyes. Baked into As­sis­tant on Pixel phones and soon to on An­droid phones ev­ery­where is Google Lens, a new tech­nol­ogy that uses the cam­era to in­ter­act with the world around you.

You can iden­tify land­marks, get restau­rant re­views, scan ad­dresses, and even in­put cum­ber­some WiFi pass­words just by hold­ing your phone up to some­thing. Lens is also able to ID things in pic­tures you’ve al­ready taken, so if you’ve for­got­ten the name of the church you vis­ited in Italy a cou­ple years ago, it will ID it for you. And lead en­gi­neer Ra­jan Pa­tel is al­ready teas­ing the next wave of fea­tures, in­clud­ing shop­ping and aug­mented re­al­ity. You might even call it the new Google Glass. Too soon?

Miss: Google Pixel Buds

Much to the cha­grin of An­droid au­dio­philes, Google opted to fol­low Ap­ple’s lead and dump the head­phone jack in the Pixel 2 (though it is kind enough to sup­ply a USB-C-to-3.5mm adap­tor in the box). To com­pen­sate, Google started sell­ing £159 Blue­tooth Pixel Buds, with a charg­ing case, five hours of lis­ten­ing time, sim­pler pair­ing, and real-time trans­la­tion.

The only prob­lem is, they’re not very good. Not only are they not truly wire­less, peo­ple have com­plained about poor fit, wonky con­nec­tion, and a poor in­te­gra­tion with Google Trans­late. Which quite frankly, only makes us miss the head­phone jack more.

Hit: Google As­sis­tant ex­pands

Some­times it seems like the AI wars are go­ing to go on for­ever. With Siri, As­sis­tant, Alexa, and Cor­tana all carv­ing out niches among their uses bases, we seem to for­ever be seg­mented to the de­vices they live on. But Google took a step to­ward break­ing down those bar­ri­ers in 2017. Not only did it greatly ex­pand its reach on An­droid de­vices by open­ing As­sis­tant up to all Marsh­mal­low and Nougat hand­sets (and com­ing soon, tablets), it also brought an As­sis­tant app to the iOS App Store. It’s a small step for sure, but it opens As­sis­tant to a whole new seg­ment of users and puts a lit­tle more pres­sure on Ap­ple to make Siri more friendly to An­droid users. And that’s okay in our book.

Miss: An­droid Wear

There was a time when it looked like An­droid Wear would be the most ubiq­ui­tous plat­form for

smart­watches, of­fer­ing univer­sal sup­port and a ro­bust app plat­form. But after a series of de­lays to An­droid Wear 2.0 last year, Google fi­nally re­leased the new soft­ware up­date in Fe­bru­ary along­side two watches co-de­signed with LG. Un­for­tu­nately, nei­ther re­lease did much to bol­ster An­droid Wear. The watches were uni­ver­sally panned, the OS up­date took months to reach first-gen­er­a­tion de­vices, and most man­u­fac­tur­ers passed on re­leas­ing new 2.0 mod­els. Maybe the third time will be the charm, but we kind of doubt it.

Hit: Fam­ily Link

It’s a fact of life that are kids are go­ing to be us­ing smart­phones be­fore they can even read, and lim­it­ing

what they can see and how long they can see it can be tough. Fam­ily Link makes it much eas­ier to keep tabs on your kids’ An­droid habits. With an easy in­ter­face and cross-plat­form in­te­gra­tion with the iPhone, Fam­ily Link gives par­ents full con­trol over their kids’ An­droid phones, let­ting them hide apps, set time lim­its, and man­age the con­tent they watch, all from their own phone. Now, if it would just put our kids to sleep.

Miss: YouTube Kids con­tent

YouTube is a great place to dis­cover new con­tent just be fol­low­ing the rec­om­mended links. And just like us, kids love to spend hours fall­ing down a video worm­hole, too. But some­times the al­go­rithm gets it wrong, and Google’s lack of at­ten­tion de­liv­ered ques­tion­able con­tent to kids. Lots of it. Google is tak­ing steps to make it right by in­creas­ing staff and pulling thou­sands of ob­jec­tion­able videos from the site, but it took far too long for it to ad­dress the

is­sue. We want out kids to watch Big Bird, not ... oh, you get the idea.

Miss: Lo­ca­tion spy­ing in An­droid

Those An­droid users who want to keep Google from spy­ing on their where­abouts have al­ways been able to switch off the lo­ca­tion ser­vices tog­gle. But an in­ves­ti­ga­tion by Quartz re­vealed that Google has been us­ing cel­lu­lar an­ten­nas to spy on An­droid users’ lo­ca­tion even if they switched lo­ca­tion ser­vices off. Google says it was all part of a test to de­liver mes­sages quicker and was all “don’t worry we’re not even look­ing at the data,” but con­ve­niently it for­got to re­move the code un­til called out in public. OK, Google, tell me an­other one.

Google Lens can ex­tract email ad­dresses and URLs from photos, drop­ping them straight into Google As­sis­tant

Fam­ily Link is great for par­ents who want to watch their kids’ smart­phone habits

YouTube kids fil­ters out adult con­tent for younger view­ers... or at least it’s sup­posed to

Google was track­ing your lo­ca­tion in 2017 whether lo­ca­tions ser­vices was on or not

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