“Ambient computing” is the latest buzzword Google executives touted at its annual hardware event Tuesday.
Google’s hardware strategy has been somewhat of a puzzle. Why does a company that earns nearly all of its revenue from online advertising need the hassle of building and marketing low-margin hardware?
The idea of “ambient computing” explains it better than ever before. In a nutshell, Google wants users to be able to access its services from wherever they are — at work, on the home, on the go — with a consistent set of methods and commands. It wants Google services to disappear into the background, becoming as reliable and essential as running water.
“Our vision for ambient computing is to create a single, consistent experience at home, at work or on the go, whenever you need it,” said Rick Osterloh, Google’s head of hardware on Tuesday.
To realize this vision, Google not only needs to get these services into the devices people use, but also needs to be able to control the experience of how they use them. It can’t rely on other hardware manufacturers to realize this vision. Hence, Google’s hardware business.
While the company’s ambient computing vision is its clearest articulation of why it builds hardware, Google has historically lagged hardware giants like Apple and Samsung — it doesn’t even land in the top five global phone manufacturers, according to IDC. Even if Google can create a superior user experience for its services on its hardware, there’s no guarantee that’s what people want. Superior hardware with a variety of apps and services from different providers may be enough.
Everywhere, all the time
Throughout Tuesday’s event, Osterloh described ambient computing as being everywhere, all the time. The more places users can access Google services, the less they’ll have to worry about being buried and bogged down by their phones all day long.
“Your devices and services work together,” Osterloh said. “And it’s fluid so it disappears into the background.”
For instance, the company announced $179 “smart” circular ear buds called Pixel Buds, which include “adaptive sound” technology that is supposed to automatically adjust the volume to the user’s environment. It also announced a slew of miniature and lower-priced products to fills gaps where it isn’t already, including the Nest Mini, which starts at $49, and a new lightweight version of its laptop called the Pixelbook Go, which starts at $649.
The tinier a device is, the easier it is to forget it’s there. “How insanely tiny can we make it” said Isabelle Olsen, design director for Google Home and wearables, when describing the Pixel Buds during a video that aired during Tuesday’s keynote.
Having different categories of device also means more opportunities to sell new kinds of services. For instance, the company introduced a new subscription program called Nest Aware, which allows users to receive support across all their Nest smart home devices for a flat monthly rate starting at $6 per month.
“When you get home, your locks, thermostats, they all know what to do,” Osterloh said at one point.
The company also said it wants users to be able to imminently connect their smartphones with its gaming platform Stadia.
The Google assistant plays a “critical role” in this ambient computing strategy, Osterloh said. Google played up its strengths in artificial intelligence by showing a smart voice recorder, facial recognition and gesture control technology that lets can wave their hands a few inches above the Pixel smartphone to control it. It was an impressive display of technology chops, and it all fit into the idea that computing should be everywhere, all the time.
Even if the company can get users to forget its products are in the room, getting them to forget its reputation is another feat.
For a company that’s suffered historical privacy issues, everywhere-all-the-time becomes a problematic new foundation. During the summer, for instance, Google admitted some private conversations were available to contractors who evaluated the accuracy of Google Assistant’s speech recognition.
Another hurdle is Google’s reputation in hardware, which has long been synonymous with confusing investments and clunky computing prototypes ranging from its $40 million acquisition of watch company Fossil to the now defunct Google Glass. Osterloh, an industry veteran from Motorola who now leads consumer device efforts, has overseen multiple restructurings within the division.
Pixel sales dropped earlier this year, which Alphabet chief financial officer attributed to high smartphone prices. Even though Pixel sales have since rebounded from a rocky start, getting users to buy into the whole system, which largely sits in the most personal areas of humans, may be its biggest feat yet.