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 is Reportedly Working on a Premium Google Home Max (Sep 28, 2017)
9to5Google reports that Google is working on a premium speaker for its Google Home range, tentatively named the “Max”, which could either appear alongside the recently leaked Google home Mini at next week’s hardware event or show up sometime later. Such a device would be the first sign that either of the two major players in the voice speaker market today is interested in participating in the premium audio space directly – Amazon beefed up the audio capabilities in its own devices at yesterday’s event, but they’re still not aiming to compete with high-end speakers. Given the recent announcements from partners using Google Assistant and Alexa in the premium segment, I had assumed both companies would cede that market to others, but it appears that Google at least is somewhat serious about participating directly. That’s in keeping with the premium positioning of its other hardware products, with the Pixel and Pixelbook both targeting the pricier end of their respective categories. And it makes sense if Google wants to avoid merely attracting the lower end of the market as it has largely done with Android, though it will make life even harder for Sonos if both Apple and Google get into the premium segment. (If all this is of interest to you, you might be interested in my column today for Techpinions, which dives rather more deeply into yesterday’s Amazon announcements). Lastly, I heard from a tipster today who suggested Google is also working on a couple of Home devices with screens, and that this was part of the reason it pulled YouTube from the Echo Show – I haven’t been able to confirm that yet, but it’s an interesting thought.
Google to Partner with Bose for Assistant-Enabled Headphones (Sep 14, 2017)
★ Apple Announces HomePod Home Audio System with Siri (Jun 5, 2017)
Apple’s AirPods Have a 98% Customer Satisfaction Rating (May 1, 2017)
This product isn’t a huge surprise, and in fact it seems that a lot of Sonos fans (and observers) are actually disappointed in it. To me, it feels like this is the last product from the old strategy at Sonos before it begins embracing voice control and other features it’s been talking about in recent months. It’s a logical counterpart to the Playbar that Sonos already makes for wall-mounted TVs, and is basically the same product in a different shape, to sit under a TV on a stand instead. Sonos is in an interesting and challenging period at the moment where it’s talking about the future but very much still delivering products from the present (and even past). It’s going to have to move fast to avoid being left behind by a whole set of connected and smart speakers from competitors – I suspect there are growing numbers of people who will sacrifice a little audio quality for a whole home audio system they can control with their voices.
Two Sonos Updates – The Verge / Variety (Jan 20, 2017)
Sonos recently got a new CEO, and he’s been communicating with both staff and reporters. The Verge has a mostly intact copy of his internal email to staff, while Variety has an interview with the main himself. The letter to staff is less revealing, though it suggests some broad strokes of the company’s strategy, while the Variety interview adds more unique insight, such as Sonos’s plans to incorporate Amazon’s Alexa into its speakers, a possible IPO, and plans for more of a retail presence. Sonos is in a fascinating space – it was arguably the big standalone home speaker player before Amazon came along with the Echo, and still has the advantage when it comes to whole home audio. But Echo and Google Home offer a big feature Sonos doesn’t, and I think Spence is smart to plan to incorporate both Alexa and potentially other voice assistants. Sonos would still make a fascinating buy for Apple, which already has its products in most of its stores, but both the Echo/Home and Sonos markets could be threatened by an organic entry by Apple into this combined market too.
There’s lots of interesting data in here about both AirPod and Beats sales over the past twelve months and the holiday period. Bluetooth headphones in general have skyrocketed in terms of share, something that was happening already but was likely accelerated by the removal of the headphone jack on the new iPhone. All of the new W1-based products are expensive, and it’s not clear from the report what share of Beats sales were these high end ones rather than the cheaper ones Beats offers. But it’s a sign that at least some people are embracing the iPhone’s wireless audio future.
It must be tempting to make every speaker-related story about Amazon and Echo at the moment, but I think the thrust of this story is off. I just met with Sonos last week at CES, and they’re doing very well – arguably just hitting their stride, with their first brand advertising campaign after many years of word of mouth marketing alone. They recently secured Apple Store distribution and have an interesting partnership with AirBnb. I do think they’ll want to take their current Alexa integration beyond Echo-based control by incorporating microphones into the line, but I don’t see an existential threat here just yet.