It was a bit surprising, on Tuesday morning, to see Google’s C.E.O., Sundar Pichai, stride onstage in San Francisco’s Ghirardelli Square and start talking about the quality of Google’s software and the information it brings to people. The event had been billed as a presentation of new hardware devices; some were even describing it as the most significant event of its kind that Google had ever held. And yet, there was Pichai, going on about how Google’s software allows people to connect with “over seventy billion facts about people, places, and things.” Only at the end of this speech did he get to a hardware-related point: all this impressive software would be embedded in Google’s new devices.

Google is in the middle of an awkward transition. The company, like many of its competitors, has recently realized that it needs to build its own devices if it wants to reach users more effectively. This is because the companies that make popular hardware, like Samsung and Apple, get to decide which software comes pre-loaded onto their devices. Any company that makes software—the browsers that people use to search for information on their phones, for example, or the mapping apps that they use to get from place to place—is dependent on hardware makers to give them prime real estate on devices. But there’s little to keep hardware companies from creating their own competing software; Samsung, a major producer of phones that use Google’s Android operating system, recently started embedding phones with its own Samsung Pay mobile-wallet software, a direct competitor to Google’s similar Android Pay. To really have direct access to users, companies are realizing that they need to sell devices under their own brand. Even the company behind Snapchat, the app for sharing messages and photos, has just unveiled its own device: a pair of photo-sharing sunglasses intended to help reduce Snapchat’s reliance on smartphones.

Google has always done hardware pretty poorly; Google Glass, its boldest experiment in a tangible object, is now recognized as an utter failure. That helps explain Pichai’s opening move: to make the case that Google has any business designing devices, he started by trying to convince his audience that what makes hardware valuable is the software within it—which just happens to be Google’s area of expertise. Pichai wasn’t there to sell phones or home devices, or anything else you could hold in your hand; he was there to sell people on establishing, as he put it, “a natural dialogue between our users and Google to help them get things done in the real world.”

The sort of people who attend high-profile product-launch events or stream them online, however, are not the sort of people who are much interested in learning about the use of software to facilitate a dialogue. These people are the earliest adopters of hardware, whose enthusiasm, or lack thereof, can make or break a new device. They want to know about the product. There are technical considerations: How fast is it? How long does its battery last? There are also aesthetic ones: Does it fit comfortably in one’s palm? Does it do fancier tricks than other devices of its kind? Does it look cool? This is newish ground for Google. But, at Tuesday’s event, there were signs that the company is doing its best to compete with rivals on the merits of the hardware itself.

After Pichai’s introduction, the event started to resemble a more traditional product launch. We learned that the company’s new phone, the six-hundred-and-forty-nine-dollar Pixel, has a camera that an independent camera-ratings company said was the best smartphone camera ever created; it also comes in a neat-looking blue color. With the phone, Google is diving back into the handset business, taking the design in-house after buying Motorola in 2012 and selling it a few years later. Whereas many Android devices are marketed as lower-cost alternatives to iPhones, the Pixel, priced as high as it is, seems designed to compete with Apple’s device. Google Home, the company’s hundred-and-twenty-nine-dollar home-assistant device, is also a follow-on device, trying to catch up with Amazon’s Echo. It includes some nifty features, like a touch-sensitive top that can be used for adjusting the volume and other things.

Perhaps the most striking revelation was the unveiling of a new seventy-nine-dollar virtual-reality headset called Daydream View—really, a kind of container into which you plop your Pixel (or any other compatible phone) before strapping it onto your head. It’s impossible to see Google present a device like this and not think of the Google Glass fiasco, but Google, to its credit, seems to have learned from its mistakes with that device. Google Glass, a pair of glasses with a tiny computer in the corner of one lens, read as dorky at best, and threatening, in a science-fiction sort of way, at worst. Introducing Daydream View, by contrast, Clay Bavor, Google’s vice-president of virtual reality, announced, “We weren’t inspired by gadgets. We looked at what people actually wear. Fabrics! Soft microfibres you’d find in clothing and athletic wear.” The headset, made with lightweight fabric, initially comes in gray—or “slate” as Google prefers—with “snow” and “crimson” coming later. It evokes the opposite of Google Glass’s clunkiness: it’s like a pair of sweatpants for your head.


This design decision might seem minor compared to the intellectual challenge of building voice-recognition and artificial-intelligence software that can accurately understand and respond to people’s commands, but, when it comes to selling a product, design matters. Google has historically relied on its software-creating prowess to sell people on its products and services, and it makes sense that this would continue to be part of its strategy as it redoubles its efforts in hardware. But the company’s success in selling people on devices will depend at least as much on style as on substance.

[Source:-The New Yourker]