Google to device makers: You do you, and I'll do me

Throughout the year, third parties have shown off devices in line with Google's stated platform priorities. But when it comes to its own devices, Google feels free to go its own way.
Written by Ross Rubin on

In courting Android users, which path should companies follow? Is it the one that Google advocated at its signature developer event I/O? Or the one that goes with its own hardware? This year, the distance between what was deemed good for the goose at its developer I/O event in Mountain View and what was good for the Google at its Made by Google event in New York City went beyond geography.

Also: Android turns 10: Google's fierce iPhone rival had a stumbling start CNET

Things started typically enough with Google's new Pixel 3 phones, which run on the latest version of Android. Even in a relatively concise Pixel 3 presentation, Google made a strong case for how AI helps improve the latest iteration of its smartphone. It did this not just for photos, as is the trend these days, but with an innovative call screening feature that brings us a small step closer to having our smartphones interact for us rather than with us. But among all of Google's consumer smart device initiatives, Android Pie needs Google's first-party support the least.

Indeed, Google showed it is abstaining from or even creating competing designs to many of its initiatives. In my last column, for example, I wrote about how Google had indirectly disparaged smartphone operating systems such as iOS and -- by extension -- Android (which has far worse tablet support) in promoting the Chrome OS-based Pixel Slate.

And in newer categories, Google stepped up to take on new competition from a revised Echo Show and Facebook's Alexa-enabled Portal video chat device with the Google Home Hub. That device, though, is not based on the enhanced smart speaker platform for which Google has signed up partners such as Lenovo, even though it sounds like an extension of the Google Home line and taps into the Google Assistant. Rather, the Hub, which focuses heavily on home automation, feels like something that was incubated within Nest prior to its integration with Google's hardware group. (Side note: It's interesting to see modern security suites creating fixed monitoring devices at a time when established providers such as Vivint are moving away from fixed panels.)

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Indeed, the category slowdown from Google this year may be due in part to the integration of Nest. Stalwart Wear OS fans looking for the latest this holiday season can go with a big brand like LG or a small one like Ticwatch, but not a Google smartwatch. Google also took a pass at moving forward with its Daydream headsets or the quirky Google Clips camera experiment from last year.

Of course, Microsoft and Google are no more obligated to produce the devices they advocate for others than Apple is to make ceiling fans that support HomeKit. And as neither company's hardware efforts are an exercise in corporate philanthropy, all products must be evaluated for their commercial potential even as other strategic interests are at play.

Microsoft, for example, was willing to eat its own dog food by supporting Windows RT with the first Surface. That was a disagreeable meal, although one that provided lessons for more recent initiatives such as Windows on Snapdragon. But it has also played both sides of first-party and third-party exclusivity. For example, HoloLens is a first-party offering only while mixed reality headsets are bring offered exclusively by partners such as HP and Acer. But it's not as if Microsoft advocated companies make VR devices and then introduced HoloLens later that year. That would have created a scenario in which Microsoft would appear to have shifted its direction to third parties.

And having companies compete in their own ecosystems can prove frustrating for licensees. At its Echo products announcements a few weeks back, Amazon rolled out Echo Auto, an admittedly different take on in-car Alexa access than the Anker Roav Kira. It also made a stronger push into multi-room and premium audio that competes more directly with Sonos, which continues to face delays in cementing its neutral agent status by adding support for Google Assistant in addition to Alexa. Meanwhile, according to Gartner, Microsoft emerged as one of the top five PC manufacturers in the US, knocking Acer out of the group. Acer, incidentally, was first to get into the Chrome OS-tablet game with a version aimed at education.

Also: How to organize your to-do list with Google Tasks TechRepublic

Still, it is striking how much divergence we saw in the Made by Google event. Its path creates a mystery as to where Google feels the need to lead by example versus differentiate and by deciding which product categories are worth pursuing at this time. Google's interest across such a broad and diverse array of consumer technologies may make such shifting attention spans easier to understand, but it doesn't serve the company well in its platform expansion goals.

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