On Tuesday, Google held their annual hardware event in New York City to announce all their upcoming products under the Pixel and Nest line. Vergecast hosts Nilay Patel and Dieter Bohn attended and were able to record an interview with Google’s hardware chief Rick Osterloh, the company’s senior vice president of devices and services.
Osterloh talked about the new products Google announced, including the Pixel 4, the Pixelbook Go, the Nest Mini, and the all-new Pixel Buds. The conversation also touched on Google’s approach to marketing its many hardware products, updates to the camera on the Pixel 4, and how serious the company is about Project Soli motion gestures and the Thread smart home protocol.
Below is a lightly edited excerpt of the conversation.
Dieter Bohn: So, you’ve made an incredible phone. How do you make sure that you sell it to an incredible number of people?
Rick Osterloh: Well, thank you. One of the key things is, we’ve been pretty measured in our distribution approach to date. Now, we’re going to be available from day one on all the major US carriers. I think that’s going to make a big difference. We announced we’ll be on AT&T and T-Mobile and Sprint and Verizon today, so that’s great. You can also buy it unlocked from us or Best Buy and other places, and supports Google Fi as well.
That’ll be the key thing when all the channels that people are primarily buying these products through or selling our product, I think that’ll help us a lot. Of course, we have a lot of marketing push behind it as well.
Nilay Patel: Well, so a lot of marketing push is kind of the key, right? There was a bunch of marketing push around the previous Pixel phones. Is it going to be substantially more or are you going to go make sort of the investments that your big competitors make in marketing phones?
We think they’re pretty significant. You’ll see a lot of our advertisements around. You know, we’ll be in a lot of live events. We also do a lot on YouTube. We found that we can reach the people we’re trying to reach on YouTube.
NP: How very convenient.
Yes. YouTube is a handy marketing capability, but at the same time it’s sort of obvious, too. We’re selling a phone that brings together the best of Google services, so a lot of those people are going to be using Google services. So it’s a good place--
NP: One of the narratives of the overall phone market is saturated, right? There’s not a lot of people in America who don’t have a smartphone who want to buy an $800 flagship phone. So, you’ve got to convert. Either switch people from the other ecosystem or you’ve got to convert them out of being a Samsung or LG or something. Are you actively thinking about that challenge?
Yeah, I mean, everyone who buys one of our phones is probably coming from something else and that’s just a mature market. And the thing they’re coming from is probably pretty good, so it’s super important to keep trying to improve the user experience and you have to make it better and better every year. The upgrade cycles are really slowing down. I think you said this actually in a recent podcast. But most of the people we’re making product for are actually people that own a Pixel 1 or Pixel 2 or maybe something like an iPhone 7 or something. This is actually a really big upgrade for them and can be quite a big difference because they’ve skipped like two or three generations of product.
We’re trying to make it easy for someone to use a Pixel for the first time. Trying to make it so that the setup experience is easy if they’re coming from a different ecosystem, that the conversion process is okay. We now have included, with all the Pixel 4s, Google One support. So they can have live support if they run into something they don’t understand. They can call someone and they’ll literally walk them through how to get through it.
So, hopefully that will help a lot. It’s certainly hard to convert people to a new product and ours is definitely different. It’s how we as Google want the experience to show up to our users and we hope people like it.
NP: So, a big part of that is Soli.
NP: Is that a science experiment? Is this something you’re committed to for generations of phones?
Yeah. We’re definitely going to keep working on it for the long term. I think it’s going to be useful for phones and other things, too. It’s probably not very hard to imagine how it might work in something in your home. There’s a ton of pretty interesting applications that could come from it, too, that we’re experimenting with. I mean, gestures are kind of obvious like... I think it’s also one of my favorite things, is if you walk away from your phone, it locks. Things like that.
But we can also do some pretty interesting stuff around things like sleep tracking. We also think we can probably get a pretty accurate read on heartbeat. So, this technology is really interesting.
NP: Wait. The Soli sensor, in the phone right now, can... How does it detect a heartbeat? Or how could it detect a heartbeat?
All it is, is just like--
NP: Just waves of--
Just waves... the signal coming back and we try to figure out what it is. Like, what are we reading?
And so, we think we can do pretty interesting things like that. Now, they’re all research experiments right now, but we do believe we can land some of these in the coming quarters.
DB: How did you decide on the feature set that you’re including in the Pixel phone? Specifically for Motion Sense, because it’s just a handful of things. I used Soli three years ago and I was able to do wacky things like rub my finger and thumb together and adjust volume. So, there’s many, many things you could have included. How’d you land on this set?
Well, these were a combination of very common use cases and also things that we thought were really useful and quite frankly, things that we knew we could really get right. Because there’s a lot of other things that are possible like we just mentioned, but you have to have them be completely right for them to be truly useful.
So, we knew that this, in and of itself, is hard enough. Like you saw in the video, like someone moving a coffee cup, you really don’t want to skip to the next song when that happens, but the face unlock capability along with this was really useful. That made it so that it could be pretty performant and those are just a couple of examples of things that we knew we could get right and that were going to be... You know, people are going to unlock their phone about a hundred times a day. So, that’s going to be something that is pretty useful.
NP: Just to answer the question, you’re all committed to Soli. It’s going to be a feature of the products. You’ll see it across sort of the Google hardware ecosystem in the years to come?
I think so. Yeah, I mean, we’ll definitely keep working on it and see where we think it’s going to be the most useful. But like, gestures at a glance when you’re listening to music at a high level seems like a pretty useful capability to me. So, we’ll keep working on it and hopefully we can get it right and get it in some more products.
NP: So this was the first phone. I think the 3A was technically the first phone that the HTC team that you guys acquired helped you out. But this is the first flagship phone with that big team involved. What’s been different about that process versus sort of the previous flagship Pixel phones?
Ah, well, I mean, we’re a lot bigger now and you’re starting to see the capability of our Taiwan team really come into play. I mean, they’re so experienced and have done a lot of really interesting technology developments over the years. So, we’re psyched to have them as part of our organization. They’re awesome. They’re very good at product and we’ve really enjoyed getting to work with them. We’re one large functioning organization that knows how to ship together and I think that’s a really key thing that’s actually quite hard to figure out with new people coming together, like how do you actually make a good product and ship it?
There’s so many thousands of interactions that happen every day between people in your organization that you have to come to a common language of how you develop things and what’s important and what’s good enough and what your focus areas are. So, we’re--
NP: In having that team, what do you do that you don’t think you would have been able to do before?
Well, for sure, Pixel 3A is a great example, but they completely did all of that phone. So, it was done entirely out of our Taiwan team and they did a great job with it. Now, it’s like everything is inter-meshed so we have our... All the stuff we’re building, our road map, they’re involved at some degree and in many cases, they’re doing full products. It’s... a lot of it is just a function of scale. That’s a key thing.
They also have some really terrific expertise in wireless and RF and mechanical engineering, too. It’s super helpful as well that they’re in Asia and they’re very close to our supplier so that... Many of our suppliers, so that is a tremendous help.
DB: So, if they’re super good at RF and wireless, why was this not the moment to make a 5G phone?
5G is still pretty early and we could have made a $1,200 phone like everyone else. We didn’t because we didn’t think a $1,200 phone was the best thing to do right now. I think 5G will be interesting eventually, but it’s early. We’ll keep working on it, but we didn’t feel the timing was right for us now.
I think my point of view is that right now, 5G has a lot of fundamentals that could be better... Like better useful, I mean. You’re going to get more capacity out of networks. You’ll get reduced latency. You’ll get better IP support. So, there’s a lot of positive things that can come of it, but it’s just like everyone is in the process of upgrading and it’s going to take a very long time.
The other key thing is there’s no super obvious driving application right now. Frankly, I think Stadia is one of the things that would be most interesting on 5G because of reduced latency and things like that, like cloud gaming. But it’s different than with 4G where it’s sort of like you couldn’t watch video on 3G, but you could on 4G. And you couldn’t really browse on 3G, but you could on 4G.
NP: So, let’s shift to the camera — the feature you are shipping, not the 5G radio that you’re not. So, the camera’s been the big differentiator of the Pixel 1 for years now. It’s the reference standard we hold up all the other smartphones against. I think Apple did a pretty good job this year. I enjoyed Marc Levoy onstage taking his shots. Some of what he was saying is anybody can understand what’s happening here. It’s not mad science.
How are you thinking about that camera as a differentiator moving forward? How are you thinking about the look of the Pixel? It has had a very distinctive look over time. Is that still the thing that’s going to market the phone for you? Is it a package?
Right. I think it’s a key pillar of who we are. As I look back on the last four years, or last four generations, it’s such great strength of Google that we were able to build on. I think it’s a great example of how we hopefully bring forward Google hardware going forward, which is, we have this incredible technology strength and research around imaging. We’re able to combine it with some interesting hardware design and create a user experience that we think best represents our latest technology.
We were very fortunate to have people like Marc and many others like him who were working on cutting-edge imaging science. Every year, we try to bring their latest research and work to market. This year, obviously the key focus was really on zoom. That was an enormous area of focus. We combined some pretty interesting concepts with optical zoom and Super Res Zoom that we shipped last year with Pixel 3. The results are it’s pretty cool. I think people are going to find zooming is now actually a really viable thing to do on smartphones. In the past, I’d say results have been mixed and a lot of users are a little bit worried about actually doing it.
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