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With new Pixels, Google does it alone

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At an event where Google launched two new Pixel phones, showcased a Pixel smartwatch and teased a Pixel tablet for next year, one element was noticeably absent.

Throughout the event, there was no obligatory nod to Google’s other hardware partners — the Samsungs, Motorolas, and OnePluses that largely maintain the Android ecosystem. Their names never came up and much of Google’s presentation included features that will never be available on their phones.

Admittedly, the whole point of the event was that Google would showcase its own hardware, not promote Android as a whole. Still, the keynote underlined how Google is now building its own ecosystem, one that replaces Android and doesn’t rely on third-party device makers. After years of providing a platform for other companies’ hardware, Google is ready to go it alone.

New chip, new skills

For the new Pixel 7 and Pixel 7 Pro, Google cited its custom Tensor G2 processor as a key differentiator, enabling features not found on other Android phones (and in some cases, the iPhone too).

For example, both phones use some trickery to provide a compelling digital zoom, creating composite images from two lenses when you’re at a zoom level between them. The Pixel 7 Pro, meanwhile, can digitally zoom up to 30X from its 5X optical lens, partly by cropping the lens’ 48-megapixel image – something we’ve seen other phone manufacturers do too – and partly by using AI to stabilize the viewfinder. and remove noise.

The Pixel 7 is infused with AI chops in many other ways. It can remove blur from existing photos, including photos taken with other phones, and remove background noise from the person you’re talking to on the phone. Google is even taking facial recognition again, using only the Pixel 7’s front-facing camera instead of the radar sensors it used on the Pixel 4. (You still need a fingerprint for apps that require biometric input, such as banking apps, but Google says the system isn’t easily fooled by a photo of your face — a common pitfall with other android phones.)

As Google tells it, these kinds of features are only possible because of the Tensor chip, so it can only provide them by building its own phones.

A new fitness platform

Google’s ecosystem ambitions are finally extending to smartwatches as well.

After working with Samsung to revamp its Wear OS platform, Google gave Samsung the first steps in releasing new Wear OS watches, starting with last year’s Galaxy Watch 4. In turn, Samsung preloaded the watch with its own Health app, Bixby assistant, and interface design.

The Pixel Watch is more aligned with Google’s AI-driven vision. It uses Google Assistant, has the same “Material You” design language as the Pixel phones, and comes with plenty of Google apps, such as Maps, YouTube Music, and Google Pay.

More importantly, it uses Fitbit as the default app for tracking steps, heart rate, exercise, and sleep. (Google completed his acquisition of Fitbit last year.) Although Google offered a separate service called Google Fit on previous Wear OS devices, the company may believe Fitbit’s platform is better positioned to compete with Apple’s health and fitness offerings in the long run.

That makes the outlook a bit murky for other Wear OS watches, such as those from Skagen, Mobvoi and Tag Heuer. When they should start get the new software from Google this year, it’s unclear if they’ll get the same Fitbit integration. For Google, Fitbit’s services could be another way it wants to make its own hardware stand out.

A new vision for tablets

In addition to the newly launched phone and watches, Google also gave a brief look at the Pixel Tablet, which it plans to launch next year. While the tablet itself may look unobtrusive, it has one neat trick: it attaches magnetically to a speaker dock, essentially turning it into a smart display that resembles the Nest Hub Max. That way, it can display photos, play music and serve as a stationary smart home hub.

The tablet is partly an attempt to make up for the neglect of the past. After Google did little to improve the Android tablet experience over the years, last year Google stated that tablets are the “future of computing”, and it is now trying to fuel the category with interesting new hardware.

But the Pixel tablet and its docking station also fit into Google’s broader vision of ambient computing. The company has recognized a common problem with tablets — that we often leave them unused for days at a time — and solved it by turning the tablet into an always-on point of contact for the rest of the Google ecosystem.

Missing pieces

By the end of the event, Google was trying to point out all the ways these pieces fit together. For example, you can use a Pixel 7 to take a photo, a Pixel tablet to edit that photo, and a Pixel Watch to turn that photo into a watch face. You can also use your watch to broadcast through the Google Assistant that you’re on your way home and play that message on Nest speakers in the house. The implicit message is that Apple is not alone in combining hardware, software and services.

Still, the Pixel line-up doesn’t feel quite complete yet. For example, the tablet won’t launch until 2023, and it’s unclear how heavy-duty computing will fit amid rumors that Google disbanded the team working on a Pixel laptop. We’ll also have to see how well all of this ecosystem integration works in practice, as Google has a long history of coming up with big ideas and not executing them.

But at least Google has a clear vision of where it wants to take personal computing, and it’s a place where other hardware makers may not be needed anymore.

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