Google executives said it has been getting harder to find new hardware breakthroughs like bigger and better screens, but they believe significant improvements will come from artificial intelligence software that is developing at a faster clip than physical components.
Rick Osterloh, Google’s senior vice president of hardware, compared the company’s strategy for building devices to search and email. Google was not the first search engine and Gmail was hardly the first free web-based email provider — but both services reimagined what those products should do.
Last year, the company started its “Made By Google” line of hardware products, headlined by the Pixel smartphone. The handset received positive reviews, but it did not threaten the premium smartphone dominance of Apple or Samsung.
On Wednesday, Google demonstrated how every hardware product had received an A.I. makeover. The Pixel smartphones come with an image-recognition app called Lens that can help users find information just by pointing a camera at a movie poster or an ad. The new “smart speaker” uses artificial intelligence to adjust its sound for the layout of a room. And new wireless headphones allow for instant translation of different languages.
The question of Google’s commitment to hardware is a testament to the challenges of competing against devices made by Apple, Amazon and Samsung. Most other companies have found it hard to turn a profit in that product fight, and a flop can follow a company around for years — both in money and reputation lost.
It is also a recognition of Google’s history of fits and starts with devices. The company once acquired Motorola, only to sell it a few years later to Lenovo. It bought Nest and Dropcam, but the introduction of new products from those home device companies seemed to stagnate after they joined Google, now operating under the parent company, Alphabet.
Whether Google’s device push sticks over the long haul remains to be seen, but its checkbook for hardware is still open.
Last month, Google said it had agreed to acquire a team of 2,000 engineers from the Taiwanese manufacturer HTC for $1.1 billion. The hardware-focused personnel came from an HTC research and development division that was already working with Google to create the Pixel phones. Google said the acquisition will allow it to move faster in its efforts to develop new features for smartphones.
The deal is expected to close, pending regulatory approval, early next year.