Google's hardware extravaganza: Ad giant takes on Sonos, Roku, Linksys, Amazon, Oculus... you name it

No market is safe from search engine monster

In just 90 minutes on Tuesday morning, Google took an enormous leap into the hardware market, offering new products to compete with Sonos in the music streaming market, Roku in video streaming, Linksys in routers, Amazon in voice assistants, Oculus in virtual reality, and Apple in phones.

The sheer depth and breadth of the offering is something that only a very, very few companies in the world would even consider. Sony, maybe, at a push.

It's a huge shift for the data-hoarding company, and to pull it off it has hired top talent from outside the organization: former president of Motorola Rick Osterloh arrived in April; former Microsoft, Apple and Amazon exec David Foster arrived literally this week.

Foster reports to Osterloh and Osterloh to Google CEO Sundar Pichai. To demonstrate the size of the move, Pichai opened the event, and showing just how far Google is looking to stretch, he barely even mentioned the products that he was there to showcase.

The magic tie-in for Pichai is Google's artificial intelligence and machine learning tools: they will be the secret sauce in these new devices. A marriage of hardware and software that only Apple has ever successfully pulled off.

And what a list. There is:

  • The Pixel phone: a direct challenge to the iPhone.
  • Google Home: Amazon's Echo but in a smaller, curvier format.
  • Daydream virtual reality headset: cheaper and more comfortable than Oculus and others.
  • Chromecast audio and video streaming: with multi-room support.
  • Google Wifi: a mesh system of routers aimed at stealing an emerging market.
  • Possibly one or two others that we've forgotten.

Where to start... the new stuff.

Take me home

Google Home is an identikit version of Amazon's popular Echo – the voice-powered speaker and assistant. It will cost less than the Echo – $129 compared to $179. And based on our playing around with it, it may be better.

Google's version is smaller – in fact, surprisingly small – and curved, made to look a little like a chunky candle. It offers everything the Echo does: streaming music; answering questions, working with smart home products, but threatens to offer more.

Google Homes will work with one another, allowing music to be spread into different rooms on command – like the very popular Sonos music system. And they will work with both Google's AI systems, providing answers to questions, and its hardware – like the Chromecast.

In a demo, Google VP product management, Rishi Chandra, walked through a scenario where he asked the Home (Google, you need to work on a better name) to play "that Shakira song from Zootopia." Google does the smart processing – the song is called Try Everything – and starts playing it. Now that is a remarkable jump and the kind of intuitive possibility that has made the Echo a success, but taken just one step further.

Chandra also demoed the ability for Google to provide all sorts of useful things about you – culled from your calendar, email, contacts etc. It has also worked on the funky uses: "flip a coin" he asks Home. It responds with the sound of a coin being tossed and landing. "Tails," it responded. He also asked it to start playing a particular TV show on his TV – and it did, through his attached Chromecast.

We spoke with Chandra after the main event. He has several Google Homes in his home and we walked through some of the issues that only someone who has an Echo in their home will know. It's the same for Google Home: sometimes it just doesn't understand what you're saying, and man is that frustrating. "It's not perfect, but we are making it better and better," he added enthusiastically.

The only thing we remain unsure about is the quality of the sound. Despite Google setting up several home-like walled-off environments to demonstrate the hardware, it was still too crowded to get a good sense of the quality. If Google manages similar quality audio and similar quality voice recognition as the Echo, it is onto a winner.

Downsides: it seems unlikely that the small Home will have anywhere near the quality sound that comes from a Sonos system, so the multi-room setup is nice but probably not a replacement. And of course, all the demos relied on everything being held on Google's servers.

Just like Apple, Google has realized that to get a really great experience it basically needs to control every aspect it can. Working with third parties is tough – and you have to persuade them to bother.

Likelihood of success for Google Home: High.

Other stories you might like

  • Prisons transcribe private phone calls with inmates using speech-to-text AI

    Plus: A drug designed by machine learning algorithms to treat liver disease reaches human clinical trials and more

    In brief Prisons around the US are installing AI speech-to-text models to automatically transcribe conversations with inmates during their phone calls.

    A series of contracts and emails from eight different states revealed how Verus, an AI application developed by LEO Technologies and based on a speech-to-text system offered by Amazon, was used to eavesdrop on prisoners’ phone calls.

    In a sales pitch, LEO’s CEO James Sexton told officials working for a jail in Cook County, Illinois, that one of its customers in Calhoun County, Alabama, uses the software to protect prisons from getting sued, according to an investigation by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

    Continue reading
  • Battlefield 2042: Please don't be the death knell of the franchise, please don't be the death knell of the franchise

    Another terrible launch, but DICE is already working on improvements

    The RPG Greetings, traveller, and welcome back to The Register Plays Games, our monthly gaming column. Since the last edition on New World, we hit level cap and the "endgame". Around this time, item duping exploits became rife and every attempt Amazon Games made to fix it just broke something else. The post-level 60 "watermark" system for gear drops is also infuriating and tedious, but not something we were able to address in the column. So bear these things in mind if you were ever tempted. On that note, it's time to look at another newly released shit show – Battlefield 2042.

    I wanted to love Battlefield 2042, I really did. After the bum note of the first-person shooter (FPS) franchise's return to Second World War theatres with Battlefield V (2018), I stupidly assumed the next entry from EA-owned Swedish developer DICE would be a return to form. I was wrong.

    The multiplayer military FPS market is dominated by two forces: Activision's Call of Duty (COD) series and EA's Battlefield. Fans of each franchise are loyal to the point of zealotry with little crossover between player bases. Here's where I stand: COD jumped the shark with Modern Warfare 2 in 2009. It's flip-flopped from WW2 to present-day combat and back again, tried sci-fi, and even the Battle Royale trend with the free-to-play Call of Duty: Warzone (2020), which has been thoroughly ruined by hackers and developer inaction.

    Continue reading
  • American diplomats' iPhones reportedly compromised by NSO Group intrusion software

    Reuters claims nine State Department employees outside the US had their devices hacked

    The Apple iPhones of at least nine US State Department officials were compromised by an unidentified entity using NSO Group's Pegasus spyware, according to a report published Friday by Reuters.

    NSO Group in an email to The Register said it has blocked an unnamed customers' access to its system upon receiving an inquiry about the incident but has yet to confirm whether its software was involved.

    "Once the inquiry was received, and before any investigation under our compliance policy, we have decided to immediately terminate relevant customers’ access to the system, due to the severity of the allegations," an NSO spokesperson told The Register in an email. "To this point, we haven’t received any information nor the phone numbers, nor any indication that NSO’s tools were used in this case."

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2021