The product design of Google's Pixel family seems like an afterthought -- but that might just be OK

Google AI + hw + swGoogleGoogle, too, wants to integrate its software with self-made hardware products, but is throwing its own secret sauce in the mix: AI.
  • Google is getting serious about making hardware a core component of its business and shipping products that integrate well with its software and services.
  • But its devices aren’t pushing the boundaries of industrial design, like its main competitors, Apple and Microsoft, do.
  • However, that might just be the best way to go for the company — at least for now.
  • What Google can’t achieve via design, it will make up for with its secret sauce: AI.

Google recently announced several new hardware products at an event in San Francisco on October 4. From smartphones to convertible laptops and digital assistant-powered earbuds, the Mountain View company had it all.

The company’s SVP for hardware and products, Rick Osterloh, told The Verge that the company is serious about hardware, and one of the ways it’s showing its intentions is by covering almost every product category that matters.

Google has historically been a software company, known for web services like Google Drive, the G Suite (Docs, Slides, Sheets), Google Maps, and of course YouTube, in addition to the world’s most-used search engine.

Android, for instance, is by far the most adopted operating system (OS), and has been one of the firm’s true trojan horses in the mobile war against Apple and the iPhone. Earlier this year, Google announced 2 billion Android devices have been activated in total, making it its single most widely distributed product.

But in order to better deliver these experiences, Google realised it needed the integration of software and hardware it couldn’t hope for if it continued to let companies like Samsung or LG be the ones that actually put a physical product in customers’ hands.

It created a dedicated hardware team and put it under the leadership of former Motorola COO Rick Osterloh back in April 2016, and even bought an entire engineering team from HTC this September.

Companies with control over hardware and software generally take pride in their design

Given that we spend so much of our time with our phones, tablets, and even smart speakers, however, companies usually put a lot of effort in design, too.

Aesthetics, choice of material, and the overall experience — down to a product’s packaging — are all high up in most hardware makers’ lists. Industrial design has always been one of Apple’s biggest strengths in particular, and Microsoft has put extra care in making good design a pillar of every Surface product, too (notably, Microsoft and Apple are the other two big companies that ship products they power with their own operating systems).

But, apparently, Google’s idea of self-made devices doesn’t have to necessarily reflect this sense of aesthetics.

Google Hardware FamilyGoogleGoogle’s hardware portfolio doesn’t necessarily shine for its eye-catching design.

If anything, most of its new products have a somewhat unassuming design. There is nothing particularly innovative or flashy about the Pixel phones; the new Home Max is as generic-looking a loudspeaker as you can get, and the Clips camera is basically just a small box with a bulge on its back.

Google’s devices are not ugly by any means, but industrial design — in terms of glitziness, attention to detail, choice of material, and all the other things that make machines like, say, the Surface Studio stand out — seems like an afterthought.

And it probably is, at least according to the company’s claims, in which executives speak explicitly about pragmatic decisions (like imbuing software with AI) taking priority.

But the point is that, considering Google’s position as a new player in this specific space, it might actually be OK.

The thinking behind most of the firm’s design decisions has leaned towards being more practical than flashy, focused on making things work rather than look good. And if that means being a little behind the curve, or even conservative, Google is willing to accept that.

There is no shiny glass on the back of the Pixel 2, which means no wireless charging. There is no secondary camera. The screen takes up almost the entirety of the front — at least on the larger XL model — but it’s not quite up there with the Galaxy Note 8, the iPhone X, the Essential phone, or even the LG V30, the phone upon whose canvas the Pixel 2 XL was built. There is no razzle-dazzle face-scanning camera, just a good old-fashioned fingerprint reader. The list goes on.

In short, just by looking at it, you’d have to think twice about spending $US649 (for the 64GB small model, or up to $US949 for the larger XL in 256GB configuration; UK prices are £629/729 and £799/£899) on a new Pixel. But, much like last year, using it will be a completely different story — or, at least, that’s Google pitch.

Google’s idea of design gravitates more towards user experience than sheer looks

Google is trying to make up for the lack of special hardware features or a particularly eye-catching design with what it does best, i.e. software, with a little help from its machine learning algorithms.

Take the camera, for instance.

Last year’s Pixel’s camera was widely considered the best one around, and Google first branded it with a then-record-breaking 89 score on DxO mark. The new rear shooter brings that up to a whopping 98 — which might not be reflected in actual use, but it’s still something to keep in mind (the iPhone 8 Plus and Galaxy Note 8 both sit at 94).

By dividing each pixel in the sensor of the 12MP camera into two separate sub-pixels, Google worked out algorithms that can produce a depth map capable of replicating the shallow depth of field in portrait photos that competing smartphones achieve with a second lens.

There are some other AI-powered tricks, too, like a feature that instantly recognises songs playing around you and lets you play and save them on Play Music or Spotify (without sending data to Google), or the Google Lens app, which wants to become Google Search for your eyes by recognising, identifying, and giving you information on objects, flyers, signs, posters, and whatever you happen to find in your surroundings.

But that’s all stuff that you are going to be able to appreciate using the phone, not just by looking at it. Even the unsightly bezels — both on the sides and the top and bottom, particularly on the smaller model — start to make sense, because they offer enough space to cram in a set of stereo speakers.

Google vs Apple MS (Design)Google/Apple/MicrosoftGoogle’s products (left) aren’t particularly flashy, especially compared to its direct competition. The Pixel 2 phone, for instance, doesn’t have quite the same stunning display of the iPhone X (in terms of screen-to-body ratio), whereas the Pixelbook laptop doesn’t have special colour finishes or fancy alcantara fabric keyboards like Microsoft’s Surface Laptop.

Simply looking at the Pixel 2 — or the Home Max, the Pixel Buds earphones, and even the Pixelbook laptop — will probably not evoke any allure or sense of fashion-centered thinking, which is certainly important to some. But that’s fine, because it’s probably something that Google doesn’t necessarily need (or is even able to achieve) right now.

Its entire hardware portfolio is but a vessel for it to ship its AI-powered products, from Assistant, to Lens, to Google Photos, filled with unlimited, max-resolution pictures straight out of the single camera of the Pixel (which, the company claims, people use to take twice as many shots as the average iPhone user, for a total of 23GB worth of photos uploaded on its cloud) and more.

Google knows that it can’t compete on the scale of the Apples and Samsungs of the world — and, probably, not even with Microsoft — right now, but it definitely plans to do so (moving significant hardware volumes and breaking out the division in its financial reports within five years, according to The Verge’s interview).

For now, though, the people at Mountain View will try to sell a range of products and make a name for themselves in the hardware space by choosing function over form, and that’s a good temporary compromise. Google’s devices might not make your mouth water, but, over time, they will make you realise they were worth their money.

Get the latest Google stock price here.

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.