While on the stage at Alphabet Inc./Google's (GOOGL) - Get Report Pixel 2 launch event, Google hardware chief Rick Osterloh said something that Tim Cook would almost certainly take strong exception to. "The playing field for hardware components in smartphones is leveling off," he claimed, while adding smartphones "are reaching parity on their specs."
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Much of what Apple Inc. (AAPL) - Get Report unveiled at its Sep. 12 iPhone X and 8/8-Plus event makes Osterloh's assertion very debatable at the least. But from a marketing standpoint, it's hard to fault him too much for what he said: Whereas hardware and chip engineering are among Apple's core competitive strengths, Google's mobile strengths lie elsewhere.
As the rumor mill suggested, Google's 5-inch Pixel 2 and 6-inch Pixel 2 XL phones aren't exactly jaw-dropping from a hardware standpoint, either in terms of how they look or what's under the hood. While the phones sport high-end OLED displays -- the Pixel 2 XL's is curved -- Google didn't do away the side bezels the way that Samsung managed to with the Galaxy S8 and Note 8. Never mind matching Apple's iPhone X in eliminating (save for a camera/speaker notch at the top) the top and bottom bezels as well.
Google did give the Pixel 2 one fairly unique hardware ability: Users can squeeze the phone's frame to launch Google Assistant or silence the phone's ringer. That said, HTC phones have long supported a similar feature.
Meanwhile, the Pixel 2 phones lack dual rear cameras, a feature offered by the Note 8, the iPhone X and 8-Plus and several other high-end phones (though to be fair, the sole rear camera appears to produce superb photos). And whereas Apple's latest phones are powered by the company's proprietary A11 Bionic system-on-chip (SoC) -- it claims raw CPU and GPU performance edges over rivals, while also containing co-processors that help with things like handling AI/machine learning algorithms and optimizing photo/video quality -- the second-gen Pixels rely on the same Qualcomm Inc. (QCOM) - Get Report Snapdragon 835 SoC found in many other high-end Android phones.
Apple, aided by its chip engineering and iOS' resource-efficiency, has also long been able to claim top-notch battery life for its phones. And with the iPhone X, the company managed to dramatically rethink the front camera, pairing a traditional camera module with infrared dot projector, camera and illumination modules to enable 3D face-mapping (and along the way, support the most advanced face-unlocking solution in existence).
For these reasons and others, Apple execs would probably object to claims that the iPhone X is merely at "parity" with Android rivals in terms of its hardware specs. But Google, in turn, would take issue with claims that its cloud services and machine learning algorithms are merely at parity with Apple's.
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Google Assistant, which has more than held its own against Siri and other voice assistant platforms took center stage for much of the Pixel 2 event. Google claimed over 100 million "answers" have been added to Assistant over the last 12 months with the help of services such as Google Search, Maps and YouTube. It also disclosed Assistant can now decipher the meaning of natural-language voice commands for various actions -- for example, saying "Make it warmer" will lead a connected thermostat to raise the temperature -- as well as launch multi-part "routines" with a command. One given example: A user could set up a routine for the words "good morning" that leads a home's lights to turn on and the coffeemaker to start, while Assistant recites the day's Google Calendar items.
Assistant was hardly the only means by which Google showed off its AI strengths. The company announced the Pixel 2's sole rear camera can -- with the help of algorithms and an advanced image sensor -- enable the kind of background blur for portrait shots that the iPhone X and 8-Plus need two cameras to pull off. It also disclosed the Pixel 2 phones would be the first devices to support Google Lens, a service (first unveiled in May) that analyzes what's seen by a phone's rear camera to provide relevant information and (when useful) suggested actions. Google Photos, whose object-detection and tagging abilities are unmatched among photo services, also got some airtime, with Google promising Pixel users unlimited photo and video storage at native resolutions.
AI-enabled features also acted as key selling points for other Google hardware shown off at the Pixel 2 event. For the $399 Google Home Max speaker -- a rival to Apple's $349 HomePod -- Google promoted the device's Smart Sound technology, which can adjust audio playback in response to both the type of audio being played and a user's listening environment. The $249 Google Clips camera automatically records short video clips when it thinks something interesting in going on and/or when a person or animal that a user is known to often interact with appears.
And in a demo that got a lot of attention, Google showed how its $199 Pixel Buds wireless headphones can work with a phone running the Google Translate app to do real-time language translation for a conversation. One user speaks into the Pixel Buds' microphone using Language A and has his/her words heard by someone else in Language B via the phone's speaker, and vice versa. Google Translate, it should be noted, has made giant strides over the last couple of years thanks to AI.
But as impressive as all of these features collectively are, odds are that they won't go nearly as far as the iPhone X's hardware-related selling points in convincing consumers to make a purchase. Looks, display improvements and camera improvements have been the biggest upgrade drivers for smartphone owners in recent years, and Apple nailed all three with the iPhone X. Whereas Google is providing much more incremental improvements on those fronts, arguably even relative to what Samsung has delivered via the Note 8 and (outside of the camera) Galaxy S8.
Selling consumers on AI-enabled software features and cloud services, by contrast, is more of a long-term game. Google can achieve a major payoff here -- to a large degree, not just for the Pixel line, but for Android phones in general -- but it will have to happen gradually. By means of consumers slowly getting hooked on Google Assistant, Google Photos and other services that are made core parts of the Android user experience, and finding them notably superior to iOS-integrated services such as Siri and iCloud.
In the meantime, expect the iPhone X to be a smash hit just as long as Apple can supply enough of the phones. And look for the Pixel 2 phones, held back by limited distribution as well as their ho-hum hardware, to be more modest successes.