Company / division: Google Assistant
Target and Google have announced a nationwide launch of their partnership to offer voice shopping from Target through Google Home (and eventually the Google Assistant on smartphones too). This follows on from Google’s earlier announcement with Walmart, and these partnerships feel very much like a new front in the escalating war between Google and Amazon. This also opens up potential new revenue streams for Google around voice, a medium far harder to monetize through advertising than its traditional businesses, and which Amazon is certainly going to leverage for e-commerce sales. On the other hand, an indirect relationship will make this a little more complex than a single-company solution – customers will have to train the Google Assistant to know which retailer to use for which items if they have several integrations set up. And of course for now shopping is still a minority use case for voice speakers, well down the list of actions people use regularly, though that may change over time.
Here’s a roundup of some of the smaller announcements Google made today, including the Pixelbook Chromebook, PixelBuds wireless earbuds, and an intriguing AI-powered camera called Google Clips. The Pixelbook is true to the original Pixel Chromebook from Google, which was equally bizarrely positioned as a premium device in a category which is mostly appealing for its low cost. It’s added some hot recent trends like convertibility and a $99 pen, ChromeOS has added Android app support, and Google is debuting its Google Assistant on a laptop here as well. None of that is likely to overcome the inherent funky positioning of a $999-plus Chromebook, and it’ll continue to be a marginal device. That Google should continue to compete here rather than entering the smartwatch market directly feels funny given how much more the Android Wear ecosystem needs first party hardware from Google than ChromeOS does.
The PixelBuds earbuds are in the “neckbud” category rather than the truly cordless earbud category Apple’s AirPods dominate today, and I think that’s fine – I’m wearing BeatsX on a plane as I write this, and continue to like these better than AirPods, and I think this category has a lot of value. The earbuds are priced the same as AirPods, and as with those buds, come with a voice assistant built in, though Google’s big differentiator is real-time language translation, which was successfully demoed on stage. Of course, most of us only rarely (if ever) need such a function, so this is more of a gimmick than a useful feature for now, but it’s a great gimmick.
Lastly, Google’s big surprise at today’s event was one of the last things it unveiled, which is a small standalone camera which is designed to unobtrusively capture pictures and video in the home, powered by AI which will determine when and how to take them. That’s a brand new concept, though it obviously competes to some extent with both Samsung’s Gear 360 line and cameras from the likes of GoPro, whose stock took a big hit today. In reality, of course, this product likely won’t sell in any big numbers because the category doesn’t exist, because it’s priced at $250, and because Google doesn’t have the presence or history in hardware to launch a new category, and it’s best seen – like the real-time translation feature in the PixelBuds – as evidence of Google’s AI chops, and as something which might therefore come to other Google products in time and thereby reach a broader audience.
Google today announced both larger and smaller versions of its Google Home device, while adding software features to its existing hardware, as part of its second generation hardware launch event in San Francisco (see here for my comment on the Pixel 2 smartphones it also announced). It’s a busy time for voice speaker announcements, coming a week after Amazon’s big update of its Echo line, and the same day as Sonos’s voice speaker launch, but we now have a much clearer picture of how the lineups of major vendors will be positioned to finish out the year and going into next year.
Amazon has a pretty mature product line now, but still no direct entry in the premium audio space, a segment it seems willing for now to cede to partners and competitors. Apple is entirely focused on the high end market, with its HomePod priced at $349 and coming in December, while Sonos is trying to find a niche between these two markets with its $200 Sonos One speaker and a neutral approach to voice assistant and music ecosystems. Lastly, we now have Google pursuing a good, better, best strategy like Amazon, but with its best much more focused on premium audio than Amazon’s new Echo Plus, which seems more geared towards smart home support and costs far less.
It’s fascinating to see Google come in above Apple in its pricing for the Google Home Max, at $400, suggesting it’s not going to be dragged down the pricing slide with Amazon but wants to make real margin on its products in the category. Given how much complaining I’ve seen about Apple pricing itself out of the voice speaker market, this new announcement certainly adds an interesting wrinkle. Of course, Google is also providing a cheaper speaker at $50 to compete more directly with the Echo Dot from Amazon, and is smartly focusing there as in its core Google Home product on design which will fit much better (and more subtly) in a home environment. Google should take significantly more share than it did last year with this new range of devices, especially the Mini, and it already took decent share with the first generation products. All in all, this is a great set of announcements from Google that should do pretty well, with the possibility of more to come in the speaker-with-screen segment early next year.
★ Google Announces Pixel 2 Smartphones (Oct 4, 2017)
I’m breaking up Google’s announcements today into several chunks, starting with the Pixel smartphones it revealed here. Much was already known about these new devices, starting with external images and some of the features, but there were some details such as pricing and availability, as well as one or two additional features which were more of a surprise, as well as the marketing and positioning, which is always one of the most important parts of these launches but which doesn’t leak ahead of time. What we got from Google was a pretty confident launch, building on last year’s decent start, and emphasizing even more than last year the software and AI capabilities behind what the phone can do, while de-emphasizing the hardware itself, which got fairly short shrift. That reflects Google’s relative strengths and weaknesses in this space, but it forces it to ignore the big hardware advancements being made in things like dual cameras, 3D depth perception, wireless charging, and so on, which have been themes in other flagship phone launches this year.
Last year’s Pixels suffered from four big challenges: firstly, the phones were competitive but not notably better than other phones on the market in any key ways; secondly, Google’s marketing was handicapped by targeting the iPhone whereas the most likely buyers are existing Android owners; thirdly, devices were in short supply; and lastly, distribution was limited, with just Verizon as a US carrier partner. This year’s phone looks a little stronger relative to the competition, but not enormously so given the big advances from the other major players. From a marketing perspective, we’ll have to wait and see what Google does as the time of launch approaches, but I’m not holding my breath for anything dramatically better or different relative to last year. There was at least one reference to short supply by Google hardware exec Rick Osterloh at today’s event and so I’m guessing it’ll fix that this year. But distribution remains limited to Verizon in the US, which is a baffling choice given how much Google is pouring into this hardware effort – why go to all that fuss and expense in making hardware that three quarters of US smartphone buyers won’t even consider?
All told, I’d expect this year’s phones to sell better than last year’s, but not nearly as much as if they’d launched on all four carriers as they should have. That should leave other premium Android OEMs breathing a big sigh of relief, because it means Pixel 2 won’t even be a consideration for most of their buyers. This marks two straight years of Google making somewhat puzzling strategic choices with regard to the Pixel launch, something I wrote in depth about last year.
Google is Reportedly Working on an Echo Show Competitor (Sep 29, 2017)
This report from TechCrunch appears to be based to some extent on the same tip I mentioned both in yesterday’s item and on the podcast last night: it suggests that Google is working on a competitor to the Amazon Echo Show. It sounds like it would run key Google apps and serve as a smart home hub, and might also run Netflix, while the screen is expected to be similar in size to the Echo Show’s, at 7 inches. This is still a small slice of the overall voice speaker market, one which needs to prove itself more as a strange hybrid of stationary tablet and voice speaker with a display. Videoconferencing is one of the features Amazon’s promoted most with regard to the Echo Show, and it sounds like Google’s device will support that too, but of course we all have many devices capable of that function already, and the additional utility of having that device always in the same place is limited. Google’s leaked Home Mini and rumored Home Max seem much more promising in the near term.
If there are two big recent trends in voice assistants, they’re control of music and control of TVs. Every major company in this space is making announcements about these two areas, with Amazon adding voice control to its music apps and then Alexa to its new Fire TV box, Apple preparing the music-centric HomePod for launch, and Sonos prepping an event next week which is also likely to be music-oriented. In that context, then, it’s no surprise that the latest set of devices to get Google Assistant support are those running Android TV, of which there are currently very few, notably the gaming-centric Nvidia Shield and Sony’s Bravia TV sets. The Nvidia Shield support was actually announced way back at CES in January if I recall correctly, but support is only rolling out now. More broadly, Apple TV and Amazon’s Fire TV already support voice control, while there’s also an Alexa integration with DISH’s satellite service, and Comcast offers its own native voice control through its remotes, so this is becoming table stakes for a TV interface. The specific voice functions Android TV supports seem roughly on par with those offered on other platforms, though perhaps a bit more limited.