Jorge Serna

@jorge.serna

Google devices are advancing the smartphone disintegration

This week Google announced several new hardware devices, including new Pixel phones, a laptop, smart speakers, a “wireless” headset and wearable camera. I will not analyze these products, since there are lots of articles out there that can do a better job than me, but I wanted to highlight some things around here:

  • How Google is trying to shift the focus from hardware into software, to leverage their advantage.
  • How this is fundamentally around their AI play, and in particular around Google Assistant.
  • And how this will drive them further into the smartphone disintegration trend.

From Hardware to Software

One relevant element pointed in the analysis of the Pixel 2 phones is that their specs are not that different from the previous generation. This has given way for them to show how their software is allowing them to do things differently, at least differently from Apple:

  • Push their Google Photos service for unlimited storage of photos, avoiding the hardware storage limitations.
  • Their camera software, which allows them to photos like iPhone’s Portrait Mode without needing a second camera to do so.
  • Provide the same features regardless of the device screen size for the Pixel.

Of course this is fundamentally playing to Google’s strengths, and to some extent sends the subtle message that in the end the Pixel phones are not that important: they believe software will allow them to compete with Apple more effectively.

Of course, the camera behavior is currently based on its processor and so tied to the hardware in Pixel phones, but I expect that this software improvements will eventually find its way in all (modern) Android devices.

Assistant at the center

In fact, Google’s goal goes beyond Android software running in as many phones as possible, and they are looking into the next step: having Google Assistant running in as many *devices* as possible. This is the battle for becoming the Life OS, in competition with Amazon and Apple.

This is materialized in new devices launched that seem direct attacks to specific products from their competitors:

And in all of these devices the key feature is how you interact with them using your voice: from playing music to real time voice translation. This is true even for the new Pixelbook and Pixel 2 phones, which are also Google Assistant enabled. Now in the Pixel 2 phones you can “squeeze” to launch it.

What was not shared as part of the product announcements this week is wether Google is getting Assistant in more devices manufactured by third parties (outside mobile phones). This piece is key, because Google strength is not at pushing hardware, and their sales reflect that. Their strategy for Assistant would be better serviced by becoming the “Android for the rest of devices”, this new Life OS. And they have a serious competition here in Amazon, which is strongly pushing to become that Life OS with their own equivalent: Alexa.

AI First

Google Assistant is part of their AI First strategy, which Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, explained has four components:

The conversational, contextual and learning aspects are all related to the Assistant experience, but I think it is key to look at the multidevice dimension, because that one is the driver of the smartphone disintegration.

If you look closely at that icon you can see several device categories:

  • A par of headsets, foreshadowing the Pixel Buds (this was presented before they were announced).
  • A Google Home-shaped smart speaker.
  • A car, representing their Android Auto line (or maybe a future self-driving car by Google?😜)
  • A watch, representing their Android Wear initiative.

And no phone, because the phone has disintegrated into all of them.

AI First brings the disintegration of the Smartphone

Google’s multidevice strategy was originally present on their Internet-centric service approach, which allows accessing their services from any device.

But now that same multidevice approach is impacting the other way around, with specialized devices that can rely on other ones complementing their functions. And when different elements can work together, suddenly functions can be split differently than they are today. As I originally wrote when first talking about the smartphone disintegration:

Once all these pieces are in place, then the phone as a unit becomes less relevant, as components take its place:
- Processing, location and communications in your wrist
- Audio interaction and voice commands in your ears
- Visual representation and image capture in your eyes
- Handheld screens for more detailed visualisation/interaction
with not a single element taking its place, but an ecosystem of elements that can provide value individually or work together to provide a full experience.

Apple has started to go that way with the new LTE connected Apple Watch, and I expect that in their next event they will go deeper into its relationship with the AirPods.

And I think that the Pixel Buds will play a similar role for Google. Actually I expected that they would also announce a Pixel Watch in this event, but they didn’t. Maybe their focus is to first reinforce Android Wear with partners for this, but the watch showing in Pichar’s slide is a hint that they will keep pursuing that space.

Disintegrating the camera

What Google did announce was the Google Clips, a small autonomous camera to get photos automatically when unattended and that can either left in a table or clipped in your shirt.

This product has been identified as directly competing with GoPro, although I tend to see this more as a competitor to the “camera company” angle for Snap, and their Spectacles product.

But what this product clearly does is take away a critical part of the smartphone, the camera, and turn it into a separate device. Then that camera can rely on the phone as a connectivity provider for these photos to be shared. Clear disintegration.

And of course this product has a lot of AI involved (“gets smarter over time”), and Google suggests to use it in conjunction with Google Photos

Which in the end brings us again to Google’ core strength and the basis for their multidevice approach, and push for the smartphone disintegration. Becoming a Life OS that does not reside on an specific phone, laptop or speaker, but that is everywhere and accessible from all your devices.

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