The expectations of the Pixel event on October 4 were high. Google presented some highlights, for example the high-end smartphones Pixel and Pixel XL - although admittedly these are rather expensive. There were however some disappointments, not only concerning the price.
There are several issues Google really should have addressed, but didn’t. What did the Pixel presentation reveal about Google's current strategy and what does this mean for us as users?
Only Samsung can make real flagships
With the Pixel smartphones, Google has presented two very powerful high-end devices. High build quality, good performance and a good camera are all plus points. Fast Android updates are still only available from Google. Nevertheless, real highlights remain scarce. Google Assistant is a very exciting feature, but is that really enough to justify a sale price above $600?
I have my doubts. Even if Google did get it right in terms of the camera, Samsung is still well ahead with its Galaxy S7 (Edge) and especially with the Note 7. OK, the Note 7 hasn't exactly been a lucky charm for Samsung, but apart from the battery problem, which can be resolved, the Note 7 has many more features and is still cheaper than most Pixel variants: stylus with associated apps, waterproof build, micro SD slot or also the Always-On Display. And the design just looks more elegant.
Google is going for it and Assistant is its ticket
Two weeks prior to the Pixel event, Hiroshi Lockheimer tweeted that something groundbreaking was imminent. What he actually meant with that Tweet still remains his secret. Perhaps he meant Sundar Pichai talking about "Artificial Intelligence first", which will replace the "Mobile First" paradigm. The Assistant is the most promising thing we've seen from Google in fall 2016.
What then is "AI-first"? Today, we open the Calendar app if we want to see our planned appointments and events. We open Messenger if we want to send a message. Google Assistant is supposed to do this through voice command. It can book a table at a restaurant or remind us of important upcoming events.
Mobile First also means that websites will be designed with smartphone browsing in mind – and all developers can make this motto their own. "AI-first" however, is Google’s own motto, which is limited to a few access points: Allo, Google Home or a Pixel phone for example. And if one does not integrate their services into the Google Assistant, (can’t integrate or doesn’t want to integrate) they will no longer be a part of the AI First universe. This gives Google enormous power as the key-holder for regulating access to services and information. And privacy has already perished under a sea of algorithms and convenience features. Of course everything mentioned here also goes for Amazon's Alexa, Microsoft's Cortana or Apple's Siri.
Google in panic mode: Assistant might not be good enough
Through Google Home, Assistant has found a home outside the Pixel phones. But Google is not the first company to place its digital assistant in the living room. Amazon did this some time ago. Google is likely to be quite shocked about Amazon's Alexa: in September, Amazon presented the Echo speaker for the UK and Germany. In a direct comparison, Amazon’s Echo is far ahead of Google’s Assistant: The voice of Alexa is more natural, as far as can be heard in a demo comparison of Echo and Home. I don't have any details about Google Home’s speech recognition however, without much training Echo is able to recognize a command, even when given by different people and therefore voices. Google's voice recognition via Android, however, is only moderately accurate - Amazon is more than likely going to have an advantage here.
Although Google is sitting on a huge mountain of data from its digital assistant, the company is running out of time: when compared with Google Home, Amazon arguably has the better product. And Apple? Apple appears to be a defender of data privacy but by using “Differential Privacy”, it is gathering more data than ever before and is feeding Siri with it. Google can boast enormous achievements in the field of artificial intelligence but at the end of the day, Google could be left empty-handed.
Google's organized hardware and chaotic software
Rick Osterloh is the head of Google's hardware department. He was the one who brought the ambitious but commercially disastrous Ara Project to an end. It is clear that he ensures a well-designed sophisticated line for the products. Google is now focused on promisingly successful projects and is foregoing an overly pragmatic and technical look. The almost playful color names of the Pixel phones "Very Silver", "Really Blue" and "Quite Black" stem from there.
Given this stringent hardware philosophy, it’s hard to imagine that Osterloh is happy about Google's software strategy. The current chaos with Messenger is difficult to be enthusiastic about for anyone who wants to sell a smartphone experience. We know that their developers can do better from services like Google Docs, Gmail and Google Photos.
Allo is on the brink of disappearing
Two weeks ago, Google Allo finally made an appearance and for the first time ever, we were able to experience the Google Assistant live. And what was one of the key features of the Pixel phones? The Assistant. What could be more appropriate than to give more attention to the Messenger? Google Allo was only mentioned once or twice, on the sidelines. In contrast, Google Duo was revered in a longer speech.
Even if Google meant to present the Assistant at the event as if it were a Pixel exclusive feature, Allo should have at least earned a place next to the Duo icons. But it was nowhere to be seen. Although Allo is pre-installed on Pixel phones, it is likely to run out of steam – particularly with weakening download figures. The Pixel event has strengthened my belief that Allo will have a hard time. Duo, however has the potential to be a surprise success.
What conclusions have you drawn from the Pixel event? Write your thoughts in the comments!