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Google Steps Up The Competition

Everyone loves a good race between worthy opponents. It’s your favorite college football team against its arch rival, it’s your favored politician against the “other guy.” it’s one contestant in a reality show against another. In our industry, as often mentioned here, rivalries are a constant.

One can go as far back as Tesla’s AC vs. Edison’s DC “current race,” or Baird’s mechanical TV system vs EMI. More recently, Beta vs. VHS. Four-track vs. 8-track vs cassette. Dolby vs. DTS. HDR 10 vs Dolby Vision vs. HLG vs HDR-10+. You get the picture.

In most cases there is a clear victor, while in other cases — such as Dolby v. DTS — technology makes it possible for both to succeed in the marketplace. As we dive into the world of connected and communications products, the “battles” are in some ways similar: Amazon Alexa vs. Google Home/Assistant vs. Apple Siri. iOS vs. Android. Zigbee vs. Z-Wave.

Each of these current races for consumer attention and retail market has four companies are duking it out: Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and Alphabet/Google. Google laid its cards on the table at a launch event last week: Everything is in the pot and it’s raised the stakes.

For background and to lay the groundwork, Google executives put forth some common threads. “Moving from “mobile first” to “AI first” and its expression as the Google Assistant was key. The takeaway is not what the device is, but what it can do and the machine language thought process behind the action.

Another platform foundation from Google CEO Sundar Pichai worth pondering are four key attributes that have, to paraphrase Pichai, computers adapting to people — not the other way around.

Conversational and Sensory: The product must seamlessly interact with the user through a variety of natural and seamless ways: voice, vision, gesture and more.
Ambient: The ability to be there where you are, with whatever device is there.
Contextual: Thoughtful application of location, needs and activities.
Computer (Adaptive) Learning: The system/ product must learn and adapt over time.

That’s the fuel; now here are the new products it powers through the “AI first” vision.

As expected, there are two additions to the Google Home line. Using our “competition” theme, the new Google Home Mini, available On Oct. 19 at $49.99, could be said to be Google’s answer to Amazon’s Dot. It has a softer appearance with Chalk, Charcoal and Coral fabric colors for the cover and a less “hockey-puck” like appearance. The “360-degree sound” comes from a 40mm driver, and we’ll have to wait until it’s in hand to hear how it compares with the Dot.

Functionally, the Home Mini has the same touch-based interface with LEDs behind the top surface. Of course, it is the Google Assistant’s capability — as well as direct support for Chromecast streaming — that separates it from the competitors. With Minis already part of “Buy a new Pixel 2 phone and get a free Mini” promotion, this is going to be a hotly competitive race.

With the original Google Home already going up against Amazon Echo, their new Google Home Max is at the higher end of the scale with a $399 price that tops Apple’s HomePod by $50 and is double the retail of the new Sonos One.

As with all three Google Home products, as softer, fabric-covered, appearance is one differentiator, as is the obvious attraction of the Google Assistant. Further differentiating it is a 3.5mm audio input, so that it may be fed by external sources; the ability to stand vertically or horizontally using a magnetic stand; audio powered by a pair of 3.5mm woofers and two 70mm tweeters in a sealed enclosure; a built-in AC power supply, compared with Amazon’s USB connection to a wall wart; and, of course, the use of LEDs and touch/tap for the physical interface.

Head to head against HomePod, it was a similar “Smart Sound” system that senses the location in the room and adjust the sound accordingly, and the same multiroom capability offered by Apple and Amazon. Given its retail price that tops the logical competitor, the Google Home Max has the capability to justify its cost; time will tell if the market place agrees.

Of course, the formal announcement of the Pixel 2 with a 5-inch 1,920 by 1080, AMOLED screen starting at $649 and Pixel 2XL with a 6-inch pOLED, 18:9, 2880×1440 QHD screen starting at $899 was expected. The competition here will be with the new iPhone 8, 8 Plus and X will be a natural start for a race to the top of the marketplace. We’ll leave the details on that to others, but there are two items of interest for readers here.

First, the new Pixel 2 phones join the growing list of new handsets that have dropped the traditional 3.5mm headphone jack to go wireless. Yes, an adapter is supplied, but this should clearly up the ante for Bluetooth headphones. The surprise, however, is that Google is now competing with Apple not only on phones, but with Apple/Beats, as well.

Google’s Pixel Buds will be available later this year at $159 and will feature some interesting twists on traditional in-ear buds. When used with Android 6.0 or higher models, they have one-touch access to the Google Assistant. Even better, the Pixel Buds also have direct access to Google Translate, enabling a user to take advantage of the natural language capability without reaching for the phone. If two people each have the Buds but speak different languages, this allows direct conversation.

Clearly, this will start as a one-SKU line that won’t begin to totally compete with Apple, but the race will have started. It will be interesting to see what direction it goes in.

The forthcoming Pixelbook weighs in at 2.4 pounds and only 10mm thick. With a 12.3-inch, 2,400 by 1,600 LCD screen in a “four-way”, 360-degree, fold-over configuration with backlit keyboard, this high-end Chromebook seems to have what it takes to compete. Onboard storage ranging from 128GB to 512GB and 8GB to 16GB RAM means that the Cloud-centric product provides local storage, but the competitive question is how it will compete without the MacOS or Windows 10 and the associated software options, programs and apps.

Rounding out the new line is Daydream View. The latest version of Google’s approach to VR/AR, it has new colors, wider lenses and is compatible with all Daydream-ready phones. Indeed, that describes the new Pixel 2 phones as they are more tightly designed for AR use with their new camera and 60 fps capability, Over 250 titles are available, with more to come.

Curiously, with new streaming devices introduced in the past few weeks from Apple, Amazon and Roku, it is surprising that there was no new Chromecast hardware. Presumably the price and capability of the current models, in concert with the Google Assistant and the new Home products, meant that new streamers weren’t needed. As for as the competitive race, while Roku leads the market share race, it is worth noting that over 55 million Chromecasts have been sold to date — something mentioned right at the top of last week’s event.

A final note of interest is that in addition to its own online Google Store, a carrier deal with Verizon for the Pixel 2 phones, and broad retail distribution, Google will start the introduction process with pop-up stores on the Oct. 19 launch date for many of the new products. A New York location at the Flatiron Building and a Los Angeles location on Melrose Avenue in West Hollywood will further stoke the competition.

As a play-by-play on the competition, it should be noted that the continuing themes of Assistant-driven products as a common tie was frequently repeated. That, if nothing else, is what defines the competition and the true race ahead. At the end of the day, it isn’t what the products are; it’s how they “think,” how they act and respond, and what they do.