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Google Introduces the Pixel, Its Own Smartphone


Google presented an array of new products, including the Pixel smartphone, in San Francisco on Tuesday. Credit Beck Diefenbach/Reuters

SAN FRANCISCO — For all the bells and whistles of Google’s new smartphone, the biggest point of emphasis is tucked away in small type on the back of the device: “Phone by Google.”

Today, most of Google’s smartphone software runs on devices manufactured by companies like Samsung, LG Electronics and Lenovo, with Google’s presence often relegated to the background. But with its new Pixel smartphone, introduced Tuesday at a press event, Google is front and center and selling a phone that it created from the industrial design to the components.

Google’s new strategy of controlling both hardware and software for its devices puts the company more directly in competition with Apple and many of its own Android partners. It’s a necessity, Google says, because of the advent of artificial intelligence.

Sundar Pichai, Google’s chief executive, said devices with artificial intelligence — where computers can understand what people are saying and respond conversationally with the right information at the right moment — present a seminal moment in computing on par with the creation of the personal computer, the World Wide Web and smartphones.

For Google, artificial intelligence takes form in the Google Assistant. Google demonstrated how the Assistant, through a series of questions, can be used to plan a night out — from finding out about upcoming concerts at a certain venue to booking a reservation at a restaurant or researching how long the drive from the restaurant to the show will take.

“The goal is to build a personal Google for each and every individual,” Mr. Pichai said.

Pixel is the first smartphone with the Google Assistant built into the device. It was part of a new-product barrage including a Wi-Fi router, a virtual reality headset and a Chromecast device for streaming high-resolution video.

The Assistant is also a key part of another product the company introduced on Tuesday, Google Home. As the company’s answer to the Amazon Echo, Google Home is a speaker that listens for questions or commands to play music or control internet-connected devices. The Echo, which relies on A.I. software created by Amazon called Alexa, has been a surprise hit and has been on the market for two years.

The Echo’s success informed an important part of Google’s strategy: hardware products that provide a vessel to get the Google Assistant into the hands of consumers.

Its competitors are taking a similar path with their A.I. technology. Amazon is now building Alexa into its other hardware products like Fire tablets and Fire TV set-top boxes. Apple is considering expanding the reach of its virtual assistant from the iPhone and iPad into the home with an Echo-like device.

“If you really want to make a step-change difference, you really have to design the software and hardware together,” said Rick Osterloh, who returned to Google in April to be its senior vice president of hardware. He was the president of Motorola when it was owned by Google and moved with the company when it was sold to Lenovo in 2014.

Part of Mr. Osterloh’s mandate is to make sense of Google’s fragmented hardware efforts, which span a wide range of devices, from Chromebook computers to Wi-Fi routers. He said he planned to focus Google’s hardware resources in areas that highlight the company’s software, while also creating a unified look and feel to the devices.

Creating a uniform experience, especially in the world of smartphones, has been a challenge for Google. Hardware manufacturers often modify Google’s software to make what they sell a little different from that of their competitors.

For the last six years, Google worked with other hardware manufacturers such as Samsung and LG Electronics to develop the Nexus line of smartphones. Those phones provided a showcase for the best of Google’s software, but much of the design and production process was handled by the company’s hardware partners.

With Pixel, Mr. Osterloh said, “we wanted to build things as Google intended.”

But becoming a hardware manufacturer is not easy. Google is now exposed to new risks associated with a hardware business, such as managing inventory, providing customer service and procuring components.

With the Pixel, Google clearly has Apple’s iPhone in its sights. During an onstage presentation, Mr. Osterloh said the Pixel doesn’t have an “unsightly camera bump” — a reference to the protruding nub that sticks out from the iPhone’s rear camera.

In a commercial for the Pixel, Google also said its phone is all-new while noting that the Pixel comes with a “satisfyingly not new” headphone jack. Apple’s latest iPhones come without a headphone jack, a design decision that has sparked furious debate in the technology news media.

The Pixel, which is available for order, will come with a very iPhone-like price, starting at $ 649. Google said Google Home will sell for $ 129 and be available starting next month. The Pixel is available at Verizon and Best Buy stores. For people who want to use the phone with a different carrier, Google will sell the phone unlocked at its online store.

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