Google's Pixel 4, Pixelbook Go, Nest: More about software, ambient system strategy than hardware

Google's Made by Google hardware event and launch of the Pixel 4, Pixelbook Go and Nest Mini is about the software and system approach than the actual device. Is that enough to compete with Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft?

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Google's hardware strategy led by the Pixel 4, Pixel 4XL, and new Nest systems revolves around a bet that technology buyers will be more interested in acquiring an ambient system than any one device.

You could say that Google's hardware is really about software, which is leveraging Google Assistant as the lead.

Rick Osterloh, senior vice president of hardware at Google, laid out the hardware mission.

The devices aren't the center of the system. You are. That's our vision for ambient computing.

And that vision revolves around smart home controls, devices that turn off notifications at night and a system that cooperates and learns your behavior. Whether it's Nest, Pixel, Pixelbook Go and Stadia, now available Nov. 19, Google wants you to buy into its system. The Pixel 4XL with 128GB goes for $999.

Indeed, Google also launched a Nest subscription service that was dubbed a "home awareness system" and bundles storage, hardware and services.

As for Pixel 4, it's not a smartphone. It's a natural language processor, data manager, and assistant. If you think that way, you'll get over the small amount of storage on the Pixel 4 (128GB max).

Sure, the Pixel 4 return on investment revolves around the camera, but Google is selling you on its automated transcription in real-time, artificial intelligence embedded in its camera and updates to Google Assistant and Android. Google is also doing more on the device so you can transcribe conversations in airplane mode.

These tools are interesting, but the gist is that you're buying a system. A Google system.

Is this system approach good enough?

Going into the Made by Google hardware event, the company was cornered to some degree. Relative to Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft, Google's hardware unit resembles more of a hobby. Apple is clearly all about hardware and the iPhone 11Amazon's hardware strategy revolves around Alexa and then there's Microsoft, which highlighted its roadmap and the Surface Neo and Duo, Enter Google hardware and a system approach.

As a daily user of both Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant, I'd argue that Google Assistant has become more handy. Google is adept at getting you what you want.

And Google's Pixel 4, available at all US carriers now, is really a vehicle for Google Assistant. Other Android phones are also vehicles for Google Assistant, but Pixel 4 is the primary device and has favored nation status.

It's unclear whether Nest will have enough momentum to be a smart home system for everyone. It is more likely that the home system will really be an out-of-tune orchestra of disparate devices.

Tech buyers will also have to bet on Google's system approach instead of other vendors that also have a foothold. Consumers are all invested in Amazon, Apple and Microsoft platforms.

The other wild card is whether consumers will actually go for the lock-in that enterprise software customers know all too well.

Add it up and I'd argue that Google's spin that buying its devices is really about the system makes a lot of sense.

But it still comes down to the devices

Nest Mini, Pixelbook Go, and Pixel Buds are all interesting yet incremental upgrades.

Pixel 4 is essentially a purchase that revolves around the camera. How much will you pay for computational photography on a device that runs Google's latest Android and isn't futureproofed with 5G? That question looms large over Google's system strategy.

How much is buying Google's hardware for the system worth to you?