Google’s Quest to Be Everywhere — and Nowhere

Apple left the door to the smart home wide open, and Google is ready to walk on in

Photo: Google

AA few years ago, Apple’s hardware lineup was unrivaled: It was the only company creating an array of related, deeply integrated devices that worked with each other to make your life easier. Everything Apple made “just worked” with all of the company’s other products — no fussing or setup required.

Now it looks like Google is poised to become the company that “just works.”

At a press event yesterday, Google unveiled a slew of Pixel- and Nest-branded devices, including a new Wi-Fi router, smart speakers and displays, and headphones. Together, they could make Google, a company that began seriously dabbling in physical hardware only a few years ago, the new simplicity king.

The new Pixel 4 phone, which has a 90-hertz screen, dual back cameras, and a hot orange color option, is a key part of that story. Dubbed the “Google Phone,” it’s the gateway to all of the company’s software products — which many of us use all day anyway — and a diving board for the rest of the company’s services. Facial recognition, new motion-control technology, and a capable smart assistant that works consistently across devices are key to the next era of Google’s ecosystem.

As we move beyond phones alone, our things working together seamlessly is becoming more important than anything else.

The Pixel is the first phone to add seamless, secure facial recognition after the iPhone first debuted the feature in 2017. (Other devices sport face unlocking features but use primitive, insecure technologies.) Doing so allows the device to identify users, know whether or not they’re paying attention to the screen, and lock the display if they look away. This type of continuous, ambient authentication is an important development, because it allows computers to better interpret and understand the people using them and adjust accordingly without you manually logging in.

Nest Hub Max, the company’s new large smart display, is equipped with similar technology, which allows the device to tailor what it displays to whoever is looking at it.

Photo: Google

Pixel 4 also includes what the company calls Project Soli, radar-based technology that allows the device to be controlled via gestures in the air. Without physically holding the Pixel 4 — or the Nest Hub Max, which features similar technology — users can skip music by waving or silence an alarm with a “shh” motion. The device can sense when it’s about to be picked up or if you’re simply trying to skip a song. It looks awkward now, but I suspect it will feel increasingly natural as we become accustomed to this new interaction model.

Google’s Assistant allows for a seamless handoff from one device to another and for each device to understand who’s using it, rather than requiring painful, manual authentication or logging out. Apple’s Siri, by contrast, is inconsistent — some commands don’t work on some devices. Amazon’s Alexa assistant could be a universal ecosystem, but the company doesn’t own a smartphone platform.

Setting up any of Google’s devices is as easy as opening the box and plugging it in; the device appears automatically on the Pixel to continue setup. There’s no searching for the device in a convoluted app, trying to pair with it, or trying to get it to work—it’s just ready to go, and your phone takes care of the rest. Take Wi-Fi: Now known as Nest Wifi, the device now includes a smart speaker so you can use Assistant to set reminders or do speed tests right from your phone.

Google is even making a play for Apple’s new home territory, AirPods. Pixel Buds offer an extension of Assistant in your day-to-day life beyond the home, allowing you to get answers to questions and proactive notifications on the go. While Pixel Buds won’t be available until 2020, they’re another part of the increasingly coherent narrative.

During the keynote, Rick Osterloh, Google’s senior vice president of devices and services, said that “ambient computing” is a core priority for the company. “Your devices work together with services and A.I., so help is anywhere you want it, and it’s fluid. The technology just fades into the background when you don’t need it. So, the devices aren’t the center of the system—you are.”

The key to making the ambient-computing vision tick is twofold. First, it’s identifying your user and how they’re using the device — something facial recognition and voice combined can achieve, allowing devices at home to adjust to individual needs. Second, it’s being everywhere that people go: Nest for at home, Pixel and Pixel Buds for on the go, Chromebooks for getting work done.

Apple’s Airport line of routers and Wi-Fi devices came close to offering a glimpse of how our devices could work together. But Apple discontinued those products after years of stagnation, just as the smart home was taking off, leaving the market wide open for the taking.

Assistant is the glue that binds all of those together, making Google truly available everywhere.

Just a few short years into hardware, Google has the most coherent line of devices of any hardware provider. And as we move beyond phones alone, “just working” is maybe more important than anything else.

Developer, accidental wordsmith. OneZero columnist trying to debug the why behind tech news. Follow: https://twitter.com/ow Blog: https://char.gd

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