Google CEO sets ‘AI-first’ device blueprint

SAN FRANCISCOGoogle Inc unveiled the second generation of its own devices along with an array of entirely new gadgets, plowing the company deeper into a competitive consumer hardware market.

But at its splashy press event in San Francisco, Google executives announced each device with a repetitive focus on its artificial intelligence (AI) software. That drumbeat served as a reminder that the tech giant’s hardware strategy centres on keeping its lucrative web services relevant and curbing the threat of rivals.

On Wednesday, the Alphabet Inc unit introduced two new versions of its Pixel smartphone; a new premium laptop; a cheaper, smaller model of its Home speaker and a larger version designed for music. All the products go head-on with recent offerings from Apple Inc and Amazon.com Inc. Those two rivals are aggressively shipping devices with built-in features, like voice-assistance and augmented reality (AR), that could upend how people access information — Google’s main business.

And its latest device refresh is all about making sure it can claim a lead in that next era of computing, and keep its services front-and-centre in people’s lives.

At the onset on Wednesday, Google CEO Sundar Pichai said the hardware design efforts revolve around AI, a field where the company has an early lead.

Pichai laid out four principles for “AI-first” design, including new ways to deliver information contextually and in natural conversations, and announced advances in Google’s image-recognition and translation software.

“Computers should adapt to how people live,” he said. “We’re in a unique moment of time where we can bring a unique combination of hardware, software and AI.”

Google owns Android, the software behind most smartphones, but it has long struggled with ways to tame its many hardware partners and make them competitive with Apple’s iPhones. Apple tightly controls hardware and software, and has lured consumers with mobile payments, its voice-based Siri assistant and initial forays into AR, technology that splices the digital and physical worlds. Amazon, meanwhile, has emerged as a viable contender in the smart home market with its assistant, Alexa, and a seemingly unending suite of Echo gadgets.

Google’s response has been to pitch its devices as the best way to experience Google’s services, particularly its digital assistant. The search giant grouped its once-disjointed hardware efforts last year under Rick Osterloh, a former Motorola executive.

Its latest device portfolio is even more integrated with Google services than last year. The new Pixel phones offer new ways to more easily access Google’s assistant, its voice search interface, and its music services.

And on Wednesday, Google rolled out each gadget with a marked emphasis on its smarts. A US$999 (RM4,226) laptop, called the Pixelbook, was introduced “with AI at the centre”. A new US$399 home speaker, the Home Max, was praised for its customised acoustics, a system called “smart sound” that uses Google’s software. — Bloomberg