Google will this week launch the first smartphones that carry its own brand and design, as part of a batch of new devices aimed at competing in markets with Apple and Amazon.
The new gadgets, which will include a voice-responsive “smart speaker” modelled on Amazon’s Echo, are the first products of a new hardware division set up earlier this year.
Google has in the past mainly developed hardware to show off its software and services and to encourage other consumer tech companies to create a mass market for the technology. But like Microsoft, whose Surface has become the leading product in a new category of tablet/laptop hybrids, Google has been drawn deeper into developing its own distinctive products.
The new devices are about Google “owning more of the hardware category”, said Jan Dawson, senior analyst at Jackdaw Research, though the main impetus will still be “about showing partners the way forward”.
Google has tried to break into smartphone hardware before, with a shortlived attempt to make mid-range devices when it owned Motorola. It also uses Nexus phones that are co-branded with device makers and intended to act as flagships for its Android software.
The launch of a new phone under its own name, which is expected at an event in San Francisco on Tuesday, marks its most direct attack on the high end of the smartphone market dominated by Apple’s iPhone and Samsung’s top-of-the-range Android devices.
About four in every five new smartphones are shipped with Google’s Android operating system, but Apple has maintained a lock on the most wealthy customers and claims a widening lead for the amount spent in its App Store compared to Google’s rival Play store. “Google can’t stand idly by and let all these [wealthy] eyeballs go to Apple,” said Geoff Blaber, an analyst at CCS Insight.
While the Nexus is sold online as part of a new direct sales model, the new Google phone is expected to include partnerships with mobile carriers to reach a wider market. The details Google will reveal this week about the phones themselves are “much less important than the marketing and distribution”, said Mr Dawson.
Other hardware expected this week includes Home, which is designed to tap into the new market pioneered by Amazon’s Echo. The voice-activated device will be a showcase for Google’s voice-based Assistant, one of the most important products of the company’s recent push into artificial intelligence. The same technology is also expected to be embedded in the new Google phones, matching Apple’s use of Siri as a voice-activated assistant in the iPhone.
Though the Echo has an early lead in the new category of smart home devices, Google “should have a big advantage over Amazon in search and machine learning”, said Mr Blaber.
At an event in May outlining its hardware plans, Google also promised a virtual reality headset that would be paired with its Android phones for this autumn, launching a VR platform to rival Facebook’s Oculus. The Facebook technology is used by Samsung, which has pioneered mobile VR, driving a wedge into the Android world and posing a long-term challenge to Google.