Hardware, as they say, is hard. Building something complex like a smartphone is tough enough as it is; selling enough of them to overcome the lousy profit margins and high costs of manufacturing only makes it harder.
Major companies like Google are not immune to these realities. So when Google launched the first Pixel smartphone last year, it was met with a lot of scepticism: It wasn’t clear how, or if, even Google could compete with the likes of Apple or its partner Samsung, which had essentially squeezed the air out of the high-end market.
And in terms of sales, we still don’t know how that’s going. At its big Google Pixel 2 launch event on Wednesday morning, Google didn’t disclose any sales number, saying only that the original Pixel was a critical hit. Recently, we had unreliable indicators that the original Pixel sold only about 1 million units, a mere fraction of the tens of millions of iPhone 7 phones believed to have been sold in just the first quarter.
And yet, if you take nothing else away from Google’s big hardware blitz this week, it should be this: Google is taking its big advantage in artificial intelligence, and turning it into a hardware advantage that should completely embarrass Apple with how far ahead some of this stuff is.
You can see it everywhere — Google Photos, the company’s photo-storage service, is way better than Apple’s iCloud, and it’s built in to every Pixel phone. Google Assistant, the smart voice assistant at the heart of the Pixel and the Google Home smart speakers, is lightyears ahead of Siri.
The best example so far, though, can be found in the Google Pixel Buds, a set of wireless airbuds designed to work with the Google Pixel 2 phone. They’re direct competitors to Apple’s pioneering AirPods.
While Google definitely doesn’t win any points for originality, Pixel Buds definitely win on innovation.
Right out of the proverbial box, the Google Pixel Buds will sport a nifty integration with the Google Translate app so you can use it as something like a universal translator: Your speech gets translated into, say, French, and the other person’s French gets translated to English right in your ears. It’s nifty, and in my own brief test, seems to work decently well.
This is something that is here, right now, in a device that’s shipping in October. Meanwhile, Apple has a world of possibilities in front of it for the AirPods, with the power to turn them into “hearable computers,” or at least a killer set of hearing aids. So far, however, this is something Apple has shown little to no interest in, almost a year later.
In other words, Google is putting its considerable edge in artificial intelligence to work by showing all the places where Apple is weak. Beyond the Pixel Buds, Google also showed off features in the Pixel 2 phone like a refreshed Google Lens, which can search your photos for relevant information. If your photo has a picture of the Taj Mahal, it will tell you.
So, no, Google’s new Pixel 2 phones won’t win any awards for originality. Compared to new phones like the Samsung Galaxy S8, the iPhone X, or even Android cofounder Andy Rubin’s Essential Phone, the specs and the design of the Pixel 2 are decidedly unexceptional (although it packs a pretty great camera). Who knows what Pixel 2 sales will look like.
And yet, if you view Wednesday’s product announcements as Google showing Apple just how far behind it is in artificial intelligence, well, it all makes perfect sense. Google’s new hardware doesn’t make the iPhone look any worse, by direct comparison, but it sure does make Apple itself look like it’s behind the curve.
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