Google hardware chief Rick Osterloh is just getting started

More than most companies, Google might be well positioned to offer appealing phones without luxury-item price tags. Already, most of the most interesting things about its devices involve advances in software rather than hardware, such as the Pixel’s AI-infused Night Sight camera mode. “A lot of the future innovation, in our opinion, is going to come from software and AI work, and that’s a pretty interesting dynamic,” says Osterloh. “We see opportunity to come up with products that make for more accessible price points, with a great user experience.” That’s in line with leaks and rumors involving lower-cost Pixel phones being imminent. (Osterloh acknowledges that Google will have hardware news at its I/O conference next week.)

Beyond the phone

From the start, one key aim of Osterloh’s group was to build smartphones that were not only successful but also an example to the rest of the industry of how polished an Android phone could be. That, Osterloh says, “is a forever goal.” Just as important, though, the company wanted to bring a fully Google-y approach to emerging categories of connected gadgets, perhaps best typified by Amazon’s Alexa-powered Echo products. “Endpoints for computing have exploded in this era,” says Osterloh. “There’s just tons of new types of client computing devices, from smart speakers and now smart displays to wearables.”

Google Home Hub is a smart speaker with a screen (but no camera). [Photo: courtesy of Google]

Since their 2016 debute, Google Home speakers, which provide ambient access to the Google Assistant, have become a credible Echo rival. Research firm Voicebot estimates that Home has 24% of the U.S. market (compared to 61% for Echo) and added more U.S. users in 2018 than Echo did. Google says that 1 out of 7 new Google Home devices activated by consumers is a Google Home Hub, which sports a screen for Google Photos and YouTube videos (but no camera, eliminating privacy concerns associated with Amazon’s Echo Show).

Osterloh has tried to focus new gambits on those with clear value to Google’s overarching priorities: One of the first things he did upon joining the company was shut down Project Ara, an ambitious but improbable effort to build modular smartphones with components that snapped together like Lego. But the products the company sees as mission-critical have survived, even if they’re unlikely to sell in vast quantities. High-end Chrome OS laptops and tablets such as the PixelBook and Pixel Slate remain part of the mix: “We see an important place for these products, and we’ll keep making them because we think we’re getting a lot out of it,” says Osterloh.

Then there’s Stadia, an upcoming service that will stream console-caliber games to phones, tablets, and TVs, which Osterloh thinks “has a real opportunity to transform games, to make it so that you can have the richness of a AAA game on any device.” Whether or not it proves epoch-shifting, it sounds both like classic Google and something with a shot at achieving mass appeal.

[Photo: courtesy of Google]

Some of the products that have emerged from Osterloh’s group do still have a whiff of the earlier, more idiosyncratic era of Google hardware–usually to their detriment. In 2017, as Apple’s AirPods were on their way to becoming omnipresent, Google’s Pixel Buds got mediocre reviews that deemed them intriguing but clunky. But Osterloh emphasizes that even products that don’t take off can serve the greater cause. Google Clips, a tiny clip-on camera designed to intelligently capture video of kids and pets, didn’t go anywhere, but it helped the company develop some of the Pixel 3 phone’s signature photographic capabilities. “That’s not a product that sold in the millions, and it’s not something that we expected to,” says Osterloh. “But it did help us really improve our state-of-the-art and machine learning for photography.”

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