On a recent episode of Too Embarrassed to Ask, The Verge’s Lauren Goode and Dieter Bohn talked with Recode’s Ina Fried about whether Google is now a hardware company after its latest product event.
You can read some of the highlights from their discussion at that link, or listen to it in the audio player above. Below, we’ve posted a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
If you like this, be sure to subscribe to Too Embarrassed to Ask on iTunes, Google Play Music, TuneIn or Stitcher.
Transcript by Celia Fogel.
Lauren Goode: So as loyal listeners might be able to tell from my introduction, Kara Swisher is not here today. She's in LA. She actually just interviewed James Corden of “Carpool Karaoke,” and that is going to be airing this Monday on Recode Decode, so you're definitely going to want to check that out.
So yeah, James Corden was slightly more important than me. You know what? I can handle it, I'm okay with it. He's a funny guy. But in her place, I'm thrilled to have Recode Senior Mobile Editor Ina Fried here in studio co-hosting with me. Ina, thanks for coming back on the show.
Ina Fried: Always happy to be here.
LG: Ina, so I tweeted yesterday that Dieter Bohn was also going to be on the show, and in the first tweet I didn't have enough space to include Ina as well. So I did a second tweet saying, "Ina, you're going to be on the show." And she said she was chopped liver. Dieter just stepped out to grab a drink, so welcome.
IF: I'm the 145th character. If you could have 150 characters, you'd have me.
LG: Yeah, I blame Twitter for that. Oh, and here's the other guest, since you're the first one. Dieter Bohn is back joining us.
Dieter Bohn: Greetings, mobile accomplishers.
IF: So I asked Dieter to get me a Diet Coke, evidently we haven't had our daily restocking. You brought me this lime ...
You can have lime or berry.
IF: No, no. I'm going to go with no.
LG: So did you guys catch last week's episode where we talked about online mattresses? No?
I've been trying. It's at the top of my podcast queue.
LG: Oh you.
LG: I listened to your entire Vergecast last week, Dieter, I thought it was excellent.
[sigh] Thank you.
LG: Well anyway, in case you missed it, I spring a lot of jokes on Kara [laughs].
IF: Oh god, oh boy. You know, April, our new robot reporter, is really into puns.
LG: Oh really? We should get together.
When you made the jokes, did they bounce? Did they thud?
LG: You know, I lost sleep over a couple of them. But this week, we're talking about a topic that more obviously has to do with technology. And that is Google's new hardware.
IF: Oh, I thought it was going to be another episode about marijuana delivery or sext messaging, but you really meant a serious tech topic.
LG: Well, did you listen to those episodes?
IF: I did actually listen to those episodes.
LG: What did you think?
IF: I thought it was very interesting.
LG: That's what someone says when [it’s] not very interesting. Like when you're interviewing somebody and they're going off on some tangent and you're like, "Mmm, interesting."
IF: Like, how does sexting ... It's so generational, ‘cause I just think the answer to how to safely sext is “don't.”
LG: Well, it's funny. We addressed that in the interview, this is with Caitlin Dewey of the Washington Post, and she said that that's actually the wrong answer. As a young feminist, she feels you shouldn't victim-blame and it shouldn't be like, "Well, you then have to control your behavior." It should be on the part of the person you're sexting with to also be a responsible person.
It also seems like there's a parallel to abstinence-only education. Like, [it] doesn't work, just saying, "No, don't do it."
IF: Yeah, but it's not like you can put a condom on your photo and it's all good. I respectfully disagree. I don't think it is just a feminist issue, I think both men and women should think about the fact that anything you send to somebody could live forever. And I think it's just a personal ... not safety, but personal brand if you will, or just your digital persona.
I did like the tips on how to make [sexts] a little more anonymous. Again, when I send an email, I literally think, "What if this is the only thing that somebody ever reads from me?" So I'm really careful. Now, you have a little bit of a public profile, so [you] probably give it a little more thought, and I do think there are generational differences. I think this next generation is like, "Privacy? We never had it and we never will." But I think one should be careful of what they put out into the world.
LG: I think it's good advice. Dieter, we talk about this a lot in regard to Slack.
LG: [laughs] Or Slack.
IF: "It's cold out there, you're going to get cold!" Ok, I'm 112. Johana, our cool, excellent transportation reporter, was like, "I have the oldest co-workers." And I was like, "Yes, you do."
LG: That's ageist. Well, if you're interested in checking out that episode, it's there in iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, a bunch of other places. That one was with Caitlin Dewey of the Washington Post and we asked, "Is it possible to be addicted to sexting?" Incidentally, another Anthony Weiner scandal broke the day that came out.
But anyway, let's talk about the Google phones. I was very excited to have you both in studio, specifically because you both were at the [Google] event yesterday. I was not. You guys saw the phones, Google Home, all this stuff. So before we get into that, tell us first what Google announced.
IF: There was a bunch of hardware. There were the Pixel phones that you mentioned, the first Google-designed and -made phones, we'll get into that. There was Google Home, their take on Amazon Echo, a speaker that's always listening to you and ready to track you and answer your queries. As well as Daydream, which is part of a broader push into VR. People paid attention to the headset, but this is actually Google trying to be the operating system of virtual reality, the first manifestation of which is these really soft, cozy virtual reality headsets. There was a Wi-Fi router, along the lines of a startup called Eero, to make up for bad Wi-Fi signals in your house by having multiple routers. What am I forgetting? Chromecast.
LG: Ultra, yeah.
IG: It has a long filter at the end.
LG: Speaking of putting condoms on gadgets.
Wow! So the article that Paul Miller wrote on The Verge yesterday is, "Google announced an iPhone, a Galaxy Gear, an Eero, and an Echo."
LG: Oh, burn.
Right? Every single one of the things they announced yesterday, except the Chromecast Ultra, was in some way a derivative, or a refinement, or a copycat of preexisting devices.
LG: To play devil's advocate, there are some companies that aren't first to market, they come later, and they just do things really well.
Yeah, so in the exact same way the iPhone did that, now Google's also copying that strategy!
IF: I think all of the hardware products, with the exception of Chromecast, were not breaking earth-shattering new ground in hardware. Where Google really comes at this differently is particularly [in] AI. April and I did a piece looking at how really it was a software event. I mean, all the products were new hardware. But the interesting piece was the software. It was the Google Assistant, it's the way machine intelligence is changing the interface and the value, what we care about on these devices.
LG: So speaking of Google Assistant, my question, as I was watching the event from afar on a YouTube livestream is, is this the same as Google Now, is this supplemental to Google Now? Can someone explain this?
IF: Wait, Google should only have one product in each category? Somebody better tell them.
LG: There should be at least five Assistants to go with the 17 messaging apps.
Google can't explain it. The man in charge of Google Search and Assistant, Scott Huffman, struggles to explain the differences between Google Now and Google Assistant and Google Search. The reality right now is that it feels a little bit fragmented, so the way to think about all this stuff is: There's a central Google hive mind of the knowledge graph and all the stuff it knows about you and its ability to search the web and find snippets of information and read your email. This general thing. And they have been trying over and over again to come up with different ways to help you access that thing. So Google now tried to surface that stuff a little bit automatically. The search box has been doing that for a long time, but people don't use it for their personal stuff. So the Assistant is a way to try and take all the many different ways Google has tried to get us to access that core corpus of knowledge that it knows about the internet and about ourselves and make it easier to access.
I think long-term, it's a pretty safe bet that Google Now, for example, is probably going to just get folded in. One of the things that Huffman told me is that it makes sense for Google Now alerts like "It's time to leave for work," or "Your flight got delayed," or whatever you typically see in Google Now, to eventually make its way over to the Assistant. He said something to the effect that where stuff that makes sense for an assistant to tell you, it will get in there.
But yeah, it is still a little bit fragmented. And not only is it fragmented in terms of Now versus the Search box versus the Assistant, it's also fragmented in that the Assistant operates very slightly differently depending on how you access the Assistant.
IF: Yeah, there's three different canvasses that the Assistant lives in right now. Google Home, the phone, and then in the messenger thing — Allo?
IF: But I think we shouldn't miss the meta point, which they had Google CEO Sundar Pichai onstage to say, which is, “Google wants to build a personal Google for each person.” And I think that's really the shift: Instead of there being Google as this entity that knows about the world, there's really a separate Google based on what it knows about the world and what it knows about you. And it's going to know a ton about you.
LG: So right now, if I have a Google phone, let's say it's a Pixel, or let's say it's another Android phone, just for the sake of most people ...
Well, that gets complicated, actually ...
LG: Everybody has other Android phones at this point, nobody has the Pixel, yes. And I'm using Google Now as my intelligent assistant on my smartphone. It's showing me cards of information every day that tell me when to leave for work and all kinds of other [things], restaurant reservations and all this stuff. But then I have a $129 Google Home speaker, [an] Alexa competitor, that sits at home. That is relying on the Google Assistant to tell me things or to play my music or to read me news or whatever it might be. It's not relying on Google Now for my phone, is that correct?
Sort of. There are layers of abstraction. So there's the core Google corpus of stuff it knows about you. And Now is one way to access it, and the Assistant is another way to access it. And so they're both the same body of knowledge about you, and both the same machine-learning intelligence about you. It's just that is shows up weirdly in different places. So when you ask the Assistant to remind you of something by talking to your home speaker, it will show up in Google Now, it goes through that central body of stuff. Ina called that canvasses, and that's kind of the right way to think about it. They just keep on trying to come up with different canvasses or surfaces or whatever to get at this giant pile of knowledge they have about you.
Unfortunately, it's a little bit confusing. I think over time it will probably make more sense. And the other thing I'll say is, I have historically made fun of Google for not giving this thing a name. They call it the Google Assistant instead of Siri or Alexa or whatever. But it's actually growing on me. Because one, it shows how big a bet this is. They named it after their company — their company which has become a verb for how you search on the internet. So that's a big bet. And also, honestly, I like it because it is a relatively gender neutral or genderless thing.
LG: Yeah, almost every other personification is female.
IF: And right now it does have a female voice. But they said they're working on other recordings and expanding that over time. The other thing to keep in mind, as you mentioned, [is] how does this work and what's it doing? Google Home, the speaker, is tied to one Google account. So it's a little odd, because it's a home device, multiple people are going to use it. For now, it's tied to one Google account, and I'm not even sure if you can use a work Google account, I think it might just be a personal Google account. They said over time they expect to support multiple users. And obviously, the scenario that should happen is [that] it recognizes the voices. Typically in the home, there aren't that many people talking to it. It should know the kid of one parent from another parent.
They are actually working on that. They've got it internally, but they're not ready to talk about it yet.
LG: That seems like such a unique problem — not a unique problem to Google, there are of course other companies where you have multiple accounts of multiple types of personal data. With Alexa, it's just tied to an Amazon shopping account. So it's a completely different experience if it's you talking to it [or] if it's your 6-year-old talking to it.
IF: I think over time all these companies are going to want to get more nuanced. Especially since we're dealing with kids and really understanding when a kid is talking to it and shrinking the amount of data it collects, what it knows. I think we're going to see a backlash against all these assistants that are right now in this gray area because they're not explicitly collecting X, Y and Z information.
If they were asking for information from children, there are actually laws that prevent it. But there are a lot of children talking to Alexa and soon to be Google Home, and I think regulators are going to be paying keen attention to what types of information they're collecting.
That was a thing it felt like was missing most from yesterday, the question of “what does it mean that Google is always listening in my home?” Apple obviously makes its case around privacy, Microsoft takes a middle approach with Cortana, they have this thing called the Notebook where you can actually see what Cortana knows about you and delete stuff. It's not clear to me that there are any limits to what this Google Assistant will know about me if I type it in before and say it now.
LG: Will you both buy the Home?
I haven't fully decided. I have three Echo or Alexa devices in my house. I use them every day. But I don't use them for Amazon things, necessarily. I could probably pretty easily switch to a Google Home device instead. [As for] this question about [how] it doesn't work on multiple accounts — actually it does a really good job of getting to the core advantage that Google Home potentially has over an Echo. More important than the fact that it's cheaper is that it could actually be genuinely useful for the online services you might actually use. There was a time when Echo only worked with Amazon music and I was like, "This is the worst thing ever! It only plays Wilco because I tried it for five seconds five years ago ..." Google Home will work with more stuff and it will work with my actual calendar and so on. So if they can figure out how to make that genuinely useful, it could have a big advantage. If they can work out the messaging and the privacy.
Their messaging around “is it always listening?” is, it's not listening until you say the "Okay, Google" keyword. (Sorry to everyone listening in their car right now who has an Android phone!) Their messaging on actually managing your data that it knows about you is way, way fuzzier. I think Microsoft has a much better approach. Google seems to have an all-or-nothing approach where it's like, "If you're uncomfortable, just go into your Google account settings and delete it all. That's fine." Well, what if I just want to delete that one thing? It's a little bit hard to know.
IF: I'm really intrigued by it. There are a bunch of capabilities that I really like. I have a Sonos right now in the bathroom and in the kitchen; I don't have a voice-enabled one, and there's a bunch of advantages to them. I haven’t totally sorted out how I feel about some of the privacy stuff. I definitely see the utility. It's not a cost question for me particularly. I mean, I'm kind of cheap, but these are priced pretty darn affordably, both Google’s and Amazon's. If I wanted to do it, there's a bunch of ways to do it, it's just a matter of “how do I feel about this thing?”
LG: It sounds like Google still has more work to do. Or at least explanation to offer around how exactly it is going to handle privacy with this device. Let's talk about the phones. Where should we start?
There's all kinds of places to start. I'm going to start with the reaction I've seen from Android fans particularly, Nexus fans. So this is the end of the Nexus program, Google says they have no plans to ever do Nexus again. And the difference between a Nexus and Pixel is [that] on a Nexus, some other company does 90 percent of the work, Google comes in at the end and says, "Oh, change these things and that'll make it more Google-y," and then they sell the phone to fanboys, which is literally what a Google executive said to me.
IF: On the hardware side, we should be clear. Because on the software side on a Nexus, it's whatever Google says. It's Android.
LG: Right, but it would always get the Android updates first.
It would get the Android updates first and, especially in the past few years, Nexuses were like stock Android with a little bit of Google, so it wasn't perfectly stock Android. And with the Pixel, they're like, "No, no, no, this is Google's version of Android." So now stock Android is not a thing that people outside of the cheapest phones in China will get ever again. It's like Unix. It's a thing that's going to undergird everything, but it's not going to determine the experience of the phone anymore.
Anyway, so the reaction I've been getting from a bunch of those Android fans is this weird sense of disappointment. They're unhappy that it's expensive. Historically, most Nexus phones haven't been this expensive. People have mixed feelings about the fact that it basically looks like an iPhone. But my take on it is, let's try it, see how it actually is. I think from Google's perspective, the fact that it looks so familiar is the point. People can walk into a Verizon store and they will see these two phones and neither one of them is going to feel alien to them.
IF: For me, [there are] a couple things to doubt. Part was how Google introduced the Pixel. They didn't focus on specs, they didn't focus on the kinds of things you often see at a hardware launch. They focused really on things that people do. And in particular photos — which, I think you know, in 2016, if you're going to invest in any area, it should be photos — this is an area historically where the Nexuses were not good cameras. And it made it hard for them to compete much above the mid range. And I think also battery life, they talked about how you can plug it in and quick charging is pretty standard, that if you plug in a phone for a little bit you get an outsized benefit. That's the answer to short battery life. And they said you can get seven hours in 15 minutes of charge. Every good new phone has a great stat on how much battery life, but that's important. I think on the camera I'm a little bit skeptical of some of their claims.
LG: They said this is the best camera ever, right?
IF: Best camera ever. Highest benchmark scores.
LG: Super-fast shutter speed.
IF: Where I do think it's getting really interesting — and I think you're seeing this from Apple, I think you're seeing this from Microsoft, I think you're seeing this from Google — is really making up for the fact that these are always going to have a small sensor and a limited focus and all this stuff, with just a ton of computation. I can see a day where Google takes a photo and saves that raw stuff to the cloud and then does a whole bunch of stuff and you get back a better picture. You already see Google in the cloud making montages and stuff. They did have this really cool feature that's on the device in hardware where you press a button and you hold the shutter button down, it's taking a ton of pictures, and then it's surfacing what it thinks are the most interesting. I think this is the future of smartphone photography: A lot of computation making up for obvious optical limitations.
LG: So they are expensive, as you mentioned. There are two phones, they start at $649. They go up from there. There's a regular sized one and a larger one. When you held the phones in your hands after the event yesterday, did they feel like premium phones?
Yeah, they felt like iPhones. There's subtle differences. They've got that weird glass shade on the back, which as far as I can tell is pointless, other than aesthetics. It does help you align the phone in your hand, it should help with antennas but they still have antenna lines on the thing. But it feels really nice and high end. It's got a different aesthetic than you'd get from a Samsung or even previous Nexus phones.
LG: Only because it was intact the whole time you held it, right? It didn't start smoking?
It didn't start smoking.
LG: So, a different aesthetic from Samsung.
Yeah, right, exactly. Yeah, they feel good. Actually, I want to jump on something Ina said. The thing about the cameras and the battery life, and actually even the build quality to tie it into your question, all of that stuff is because Google is saying they're making this directly. HTC is just the manufacturer, Google designed the thing. It will be a really big task to see if Android can pull off the camera quality consistently at iPhone levels. If it can pull off better battery life. If they can control the whole stack, they have no more excuses for bad battery life. And they have no more excuses for kind of “eh” hardware. If they're pricing this thing at $650 and they're putting their company's name on it, their big G logo on it, it's gotta be basically perfect from top to bottom. I want to say it's a big risk, but to borrow a word that's been popular lately, it's relatively courageous.
IF: Trying to sell top-of-the-line Android phones is going to be a challenge for whomever. Even for Google, even for Samsung. I think in the U.S. we have a distorted view of the market because in the U.S. people still buy in installments. We use our phones so much, we're relatively wealthy, [and] people tend to pay for top-of-the-line models, whether they're Apple or Google people. But I think globally you can do a lot for $400, for $500. And I think even Google is going to have a tough time. The other piece of this is distribution. Historically, Google hasn't sold its hardware in that many places, especially its phone hardware. They are going to be selling in Verizon stores with the Pixel, but every time they say, "We're serious about hardware," I'm skeptical.
LG: So Google is a hardware company now.
LG: They make a bunch of stuff. They somehow fooled the tech press yesterday into saying, "This is Google's first phone," and really it wasn't because, as you mention, [there was] the Nexus line, they made phones before that. But it's official now. What is the strategy behind this?
IF: I sat down with Rick Osterloh, the head of hardware. He's had some stints at Google, he was the president of Motorola when Google owned it. He went with Motorola to Lenovo and then left. He's back. They make the same arguments, actually, as they've made in the past when they've done hardware, which is, "Sometimes to do really good software you have to do hardware." They talked about that with the Assistant — that in order to really make an assistant that works, they need to build the speaker.
But then, at the same time, they're talking about how they're willing to license basically everything that makes Google Home Google Home to another hardware maker. I see Google moving in and out of hardware categories all the time. I don't see them sticking to things. I see them being opportunistic about when they really feel they need to be in there. I think they'll break into new categories. He mentioned the word secrecy. When Google wants to do something it doesn't want the whole world to know about is one reason it needs to do its own hardware. They're really good at certain pieces of it. Chromebooks are good. Chromecast was a surprise hit. I think they are really good at building perfectly nice hardware, at getting something people like having in their home. I think they're actually more refined in their hardware design than software. Their software has a reputation for being kind of nerdy. Their hardware, if anything, I thought it was a little too Glade Air Freshener inspired. I was expecting to see Bed, Bath and Beyond on its list of retailers.
I think they're not a hardware company through and through. When it comes to selling in stores all over the world, that really isn't their thing. Customer support was a big thing. So the Pixel will have 24/7 online support. You can share screens. This is something Google has always struggled with because there isn't a big switchboard of people in general going, "Thank you for calling Google. How can we help you?"
Which, by the way, was the worst part of that terrible movie “Interns” with Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson, their final battle was phone support. Google doesn't have phone support!! What are you doing?! [LG laughs] Now they do.
LG: That was the worst part of the movie?? Not the other 100 minutes? So why are they making hardware, Dieter?
Not only are they offering the Google Home stuff to other companies, but literally everything that they have shown off software-wise they claim that other people are going to get to use. So the Assistant is going to get to other things. Daydream, the VR headset, is going to get to other things. Chromecast, the 4K stuff is getting into other things. The Google Home stuff is going to get to other things. Even their router software is going to get to other things.
So the difference for Google this time is they say that for the first implementation when they do something new, they want to make it themselves so they can nail the experience, especially with the Assistant, and not trust other hardware partners to make the hardware and then they'll put their software on it. So with every single one of these things it's going to go out to the larger ecosystem, but they're going to do it themselves first. So there's two really big questions that come out of that: No. 1, how long will it take for other partners to sign on? And No. 2, will as many partners sign on as have in the past? Because competing against Google probably isn't fun. I think that if we had been talking about this three to five years ago, that's all we would be talking about. "Oh my god, everyone's going to bail because they don't want to compete directly with Google." Samsung's definitely going to launch a Tizen phone and we go down the line of who's going to bail on Google now that they have to compete directly with Google hardware.
I'm less sure that that's going to happen now simply because we saw Microsoft do it with Surface and Windows and basically nobody cared because there wasn't really a viable alternative. And it may just be that Google doesn't really believe that Samsung's Tizen or whatever other smartphone OS you want to point to right now is a viable competitor. And so they may as well do it because it's not like anybody has any place to go to jump ship in the same way that nobody had any place to go with Windows.
IF: I think that's really become a thing. Competing with your hardware partners is no longer the controversial thing that it once was. But I do really question how long Google will stay in any of these categories that we're talking about today. I think if other people are doing a perfectly fine job, I can almost read the Google statement, "When we launched insert product name here, we were paving new ground, there wasn't anything out there, we're thrilled there's an ecosystem and are turning our hardware attention to other efforts."
I think you could apply that to almost anything. The phones is the one they're saying they're serious about. And it's really the high end. When I asked Rick Osterloh, "Are you guys going to do a range of things?" He was like, "No, we're focused on the high end." They feel like they can bring more innovation there, there's more opportunity there, and it's the area where Android probably needs the strongest help. Again, the U.S. is a particularly tough market where Apple comes out with these products and Google wasn't something you can hold up to the iPhone. Samsung has filled that role, but it's been a really rough couple of months for Samsung and there's no one left to take that mantle. For a long time, if Samsung stumbled, HTC and Sony were right there. I don't think HTC and Sony are right there [now]. If all this volume came to them tomorrow I think they'd be thrilled, but I'm not sure they're built anymore to handle that.
LG: You mentioned volume. It's funny, because all I have been thinking over the past couple of weeks — it's something I'm writing about for The Verge — is that the sheer volume of hardware out there right now is kind of astounding. And at the end of the day, nobody really needs all of this stuff, and it's all just one big strategic effort to get people locked into Planet Apple or Planet Google or Planet Amazon or whatever it might be. They're all creating these half a dozen or a dozen different entry points you're essentially supposed to carry with you or put around your office or put around your home, and that is going to get you into their ecosystem. It's kind of crazy. I was at Roku a couple of weeks ago and they're like, "We have four new boxes and a streaming stick," and they're all mildly differentiated. And then Amazon just updated their streaming stick but the update was a faster processor and they included a voice remote which previously you had to buy for an extra $10. And now Google has an updated Chromecast, but the Chromecast is 4K — which is great, but not that many people have 4K TVs still, and you can still buy the old Chromecast. Amazon chopped its Echo speaker in half and sold the Dot. And then Google has their speaker, and by the way you need a Wi-Fi extender. It's just crazy the amount of hardware that is being pushed on consumers right now.
I think that this has always been the dream of these large consumer electronics corporations. And we've only really seen Apple execute on building an entire ecosystem of hardware products that sort of fit coherently together.
LG: And keeping it distilled, by the way.
And keeping it distilled.
LG: There are a few watches, there are two phones, there's one TV box.
The difference now is that Google is able to build an entire ecosystem. I think it's a matter of execution, and it's actually possible now in a way that maybe it wasn't when Microsoft was trying to do it. As far as there being tons and tons of different gadgets and too many options, I think that's totally fair. I think that in the same way that I as a writer on the internet have given up on my articles not getting disaggregated into a million different places and assuming that everybody's going to come and see the coherent picture of everything that I'm showing to them, I think that Google and Apple maybe a little bit, definitely Amazon, are just like, "Eh, nobody's ever going to come and look at our product chart and see the whole and see how it's going to fit into their life, they're just going to see little pieces here and there disaggregated. So screw it, let's just flood the channel."
LG: Right. Everything has to be distributed in this crazy way. It's a lot of throwing stuff at the wall, seeing what sticks, whatever horrible cliché you want to use. And of course there is the promise of artificial intelligence. AI is a big selling point for a lot of these products, and in some cases new devices enable that. You might need the far-field microphones in order to make that voice control work. You might need a faster processor to process your requests. You might need, I don't know, a specific type of chip if you want to control your smart lights. We know that Apple has required that with HomeKit-enabled devices. So in some cases the need to upgrade to new hardware exists because we're getting access to these advanced technologies. But in other cases, it just feels kind of nuts.
LG: We're in the middle of hardware season, Dieter is laughing at me.
IF: There are two things that are reflected in what you're saying. The first is, there's a lot of hardware out there that is duplicative in some senses. I've always believed you don't need a smart TV. You're going to plug a box into it. I don't know anyone that has a big TV that doesn't plug something into it. So why, actually, should the TV be smart? [Just] have a $59 box that you replace every couple of years. But there's a million things that will give you Netflix and whatever: Chromecast, all the boxes, Roku, Apple TV, Google Android TV boxes. So there is that. There's overlapping capabilities.
But I think the more interesting thing you're getting at, too, is this idea that each of these companies has an ecosystem. And I think it's going to be tougher and tougher for people that don’t make hardware but don't have an ecosystem, that aren't really solidly in one of these camps. It really does feel to me like my Google devices are going to talk well together, my Amazon devices are going to talk well together and my Apple devices are going to talk well together, and it's going to be harder to make that decision to have a mixed environment. I tend to be one of those people that likes to not put all my eggs in one basket, but historically they never do work as well together. Even a company like Amazon that's really committed to cross-device. I like to buy my content on Amazon because I know it will work on more devices than if I buy it from an Apple or a Google.
LG: I think that what you touched on is interoperability. Interoperability is a selling point for some people, and the downside of interoperability is lock-in. So there is that. But we should move onto our reader questions because we have a bunch and we want to make sure we give those plenty of time. So, my phone has been blowing up this week [laughter].
IF: Can we use a different phrase? That's a little sensitive for some of our listeners.
LG: Sorry guys. I've gotten a lot of questions from our readers over the past couple of days about the new Google products. And so we're going to go through some of them now. The first one is from Roberto Chiaveri. He's @robertochiaveri on Twitter. He says, "First Allo and Duo. Now with Nexus phones priced as the iPhone. How's Google so sure people will switch?" I'm not quite sure how he relates Allo into it. I guess he's saying that they have messaging apps? I don't know.
IF: I think the question is, are Google consumers premium consumers that like to really buy into an ecosystem? It's an interesting question because I think historically there's certainly a large Android fanbase, but it's not the bulk of the premium market. I think Google is trying to offer a high-end experience — on par with anything Apple is doing — as well as its own smarts. Rick Osterloh said yesterday that he wants people to hold the iPhone and the Pixel up together and he thinks that they will and he thinks that Google can win that side-by-side comparison. I still think that may be a tough one.
Yeah, for me what's interesting is that we've never seen Google even try the high end. They never have. Even when there were really nice Nexus phones like the Nexus 6P, they would just whiff on trying to get into carriers or into retail channels here in the U.S. So why does Google think they can get people to switch is a totally fair question, both with regard to the hardware and those software products. But what's interesting is they've always tried to step out of that fight in the first place. We'll see how they do when they're actually in it now for the first time.
LG: Okay. Next question is from B.T. Carter, @BTCarter on Twitter. "Wonder why they chose the name Pixel. Makes me think small, not premium."
They chose the name Pixel because they've already used it for other Google hardware and it connoted that it's the hardware that Google makes. They also chose it because they like it and it was lying around [laughs]. I think it's a terrible name. I think they could have found something better. It was right to switch away from Nexus but the joke is that the official branding is “Pixel - Phone by Google.” It's like no, come on. So it's just like Microsoft is putting Surface on literally everything, Google is going to throw Pixel at stuff. Interestingly, next year's Google phone might not be called Pixel.
LG: What would it be called?
LG: What would you call it?
IF: I think the problem here is a lot of companies get their name for one reason or another. Pixel dates back to the Chromebook Pixel which had a super retina-y screen and super retina-y was already super trademarked so they went with something else. And then there was the Pixel C which was a bizarre tablet that ran Android, so it's the name that they have. Surface used to be a tabletop computer and then Microsoft literally had the name lying around and chose it for their thing and now there's Surface books and stuff. So I think there's a trend of bad, ill-fitting names for really big tech companies.
LG: It's the equivalent of registering a bunch of domain names one day when you're like, "Oh, someday I might use this," and then 10 years later saying, "I'm still paying for that? I might as well use it for this thing I'm launching."
IF: But let's be clear: The tech industry has a super-long record of buying things based on the product, not the name. Remember when the iPad came out? All the feminine hygiene jokes, it didn't stop one person from buying it. So iPad, Pixel, Surface, all bad names probably for high-end tech products. And it won't mean a thing.
The one thing, they call it Pixel, but are people going to call it Pixel? Or are people going to call it the Google Phone? Like regular, human people.
LG: They're going to call it the Google Phone.
They're going to call it the Google Phone.
LG: Search trends already indicate it's the Google Phone.
Which is what it should be.
IF: People have been talking about the Google Phone. I remember for years it was, "The Google Phone. Is Google going to make the Google Phone?" Before there was Android. And there's been other times. The Google Phone. And it turned out it was a Nexus or this or that. This actually is the Google Phone, so if people call it the Google Phone I think Google is very happy.
LG: Maybe that's what they'll call it next year. They'll just say, "Introducing the Google Phone." Okay, let's go to the next questions. The next one is from Jose Allen ML. He says, "A basic one: Is the OS different than 'stock Android.' If so, how?"
Yes. It's radically different. There's a custom launcher for the Pixel, there's Google Assistant. And there's a bunch of other stuff including some hardware optimizations that are unique to the Pixel but may or may not come to future Android devices.
LG: Next question is from @JohnPacheco7. "Do you think Verizon will make the same mistake they did with the Google Galaxy Nexus?"
With previous Nexus devices when they make it on Verizon, Verizon basically screwed it up. They would block Google Pay or there were just like all sorts of fiascos with that. I spoke to Verizon at the event yesterday and they say they're totally in this. They say they are not going to put any Verizon bloatware on this thing. And in fact they say they are going to be giving it really, really big retail presence in their stores and on the website. They're motivated to sell this thing. So they say.
IF: And they're going to be combining it with Daydream. So people that preorder will get a Daydream, the virtual reality headset, and you'll be able to try Daydream in the stores. I think they're trying to use it as an opportunity to showcase some cool technology as opposed to, in the past, Nexus was just an afterthought. Even when it landed in a carrier store it was an afterthought. It was complicated for them; now they see it as an opportunity.
LG: We didn't even get to talk about Daydream, by the way, in the first segment of this show. But Daydream is the VR headset that Google is making. It's $79. It works with the new Pixel phones. It has this lovely material that reminds me of my yoga pants.
IF: Soft and cozy.
LG: It's like my heather gray yoga pants strapped around your head. I mean, I can't think of anything else.
IF: That's actually their tagline: "Daydream VR: It's like Lauren Goode's stretch pants wrapped around your head." [laughter]
LG: Sounds gross [laughs]. Dieter is shaking his head, he doesn't even know what to do with that. Moving on, this question is from @Nick_Zen. "Why does Home look like a big air freshener?" He's the only one that asked about the air freshener.
IF: Version 2 is going to come in scents.
Oh man. So Google is owning this air freshener thing, by they way. They won't say it themselves but when you tease them for it they're like, "Yeah, that's fine. What does an air freshener do? It sits in your house, you don't look at it, it blends in and it performs a useful function. So does Home." That's their line.
LG: Wow. Owning it. I like that. Does it also project fake stars onto your ceiling at night when you turn the lights off? Because I'd really like it to do that. It should be like a little planetarium.
IF: Harvey, my 3-and-a-half-year-old, does have one that projects stars.
LG: See, why doesn't it do that? That'd be really fun. The next question is from Marcus K. Hardy, @marcuskhardy. "Okay, I've been annoying about this. But seriously, Home with only one account per air freshener? Will that change?" I like how he asks a serious question but just throws the air freshener in there.
Subtle dig. Yeah, it'll change. I don't have a good timeline for them. I know they're actively working on it and internally every single Google employee has more than one Google account so they're annoyed as hell by this thing. They're working on it.
IF: Yeah, and Glade has one of those air fresheners where you can spin the wheel and get different scents. Both companies are working on multiple accounts.
LG: The next question is from @PaulGailey. "Home is never shown with cables in the photos but ships with one. Is it a charged device or always cabled?"
I'm super annoyed by the cable on Google Home. It is a charge device; it has to be plugged in all the time. It doesn't have a battery so you can't take it around. That's fine.
LG: Like Alexa, or Echo.
But they went with a custom charger, they didn't use just USBC, so that's stupid. You have USBC for everything else you make, Google! Well, except for Chromecast, which is a micro USB. They could have just gone with the USBC and they didn't.
LG: Proprietary chargers hurt my …
IF: So if that's your pet peeve I'm going to throw in that the Pixel phone isn't waterproof. To me if you don't have a removable battery ...
LG: Oh! We have a question about that somewhere. Hold that thought. But still, we're on the Home now. This one is from @marinaepelman. "Can you put Home in the bathroom, i.e. is it steam proof like the Sonos Play 1?" A lot of people are asking this.
Uhhh, I don't think it's waterproof? I have no idea how steam proof it is. How much steam have y'all got in your bathrooms?
LG: I set off my smoke alarm on a regular basis.
LG: Yeah, I like hot showers.
IF: And do you have a speaker in there?
LG: No, I don't because I don't have an outlet in that area of the bathroom. The bathroom is separate parts.
IF: The Home won't help you there.
LG: No, it won't. But I don't know, actually. That's a really good question, Marina, we'll have to get back to you on that.
IF: I have a Sonos, I didn't really know that it's steam proof but I know they designed it for the bathroom and I like that. If the Home's going to have any chances it's obviously got to live up to that for me.
LG: All right. Isn't it funny? That's the litmus test for gadgets: Will it work in the bathroom? The next one is from Kenton Harris. He's @UVAMFD on Twitter. "How seamless will this Home be in a dual-iPhone home? Any Android-only gotchas?"
There's no Android-only gotchas. It can be controlled with an app that's called Home that's going to be on both Android and iPhone. And coincidentally it's also going to control Chromecast in the future, so it's what's going to be next for the Chromecast app. Anyway, you can do all the basic stuff. You can control it through that Home app. The one thing I'll say is if you don't use Google stuff for reminders or calendars or whatever, that's going to be harder. If you tell Home to set a reminder for you, it's not going to jump into your iPhone's reminder app, it's going to go into Google's weird netherworld of reminders which is a dark and scary and confusing labyrinth and I recommend never going there. Hopefully they'll make reminders make more sense someday on Google stuff, but anyway, if you don't use Google services you're not going to get to take advantage of some of that stuff. But otherwise the thing's going to work fine.
LG: Okay. Ina, I'm glad you brought this up. And one of our colleagues at The Verge, Chris Welch, brought this up yesterday as well, saying, "No micro SD card, no waterproofing. What's going on with that?"
IF: So microSD to me is, no offense to all the nerds, we're all nerds, I like micro SD cards because I'm a nerd, but I think that's less a mainstream issue. Waterproofing, it's just the right thing to do. It's what people want and expect. I think people had patience until Apple because Apple convinced us that we didn't need it but we did, and now it's even on Apple phones. There's just not a good reason in 2016 that I know of.
Yeah, I think the bad reason is that the original device manufacture for this thing was HTC and HTC has not historically been great at waterproofing phones. That's the bad reason. The good reason is it should just be there. So big mistake there.
LG: Maybe the official Google Phone that's going to be called the Google Phone next year and not Pixel will be waterproof.
IF: You know, it's always good to have something to say next year, "We heard you loud and clear, so the two things we brought back ..." Samsung actually did that this year. They brought back waterproofing and the SD card and they said, "We heard you loud and clear." So, you know, they can hear us loud and clear next year.
LG: Right. "Please don't make my phone explode." So this next one is an email, and it's on the longer side, but I wanted to read it because it hit me in the heart and made me think about these virtual assistants and how they really don't work all that great for everybody. So bear with me on this one.
"Dear Kara, dear Lauren, I've got a question for the new Google Assistant, as well as all of these artificial personal assistants in general, with a language interface. I'm a stutterer, so quite often I have difficulties interacting with Siri. Often, she stops listening before I end a sentence. When she doesn't stop, she actually can deal with some of my blocks, something she couldn't do at all two years ago. But like I said, quite often she doesn't. I mean, Siri or Google Assistant seem at least promising in terms of their capabilities, but how can it be helpful when I can't use them whenever speaking to them is necessary? So my question that I would like to send in is, do you know if stuttering is an aspect that software engineers — in this case, Google's — take care of? Are they aware of the problem? Please excuse my English, I'm sending my question in from Germany and I haven't been practicing my writing skills for quite some time. Thank you, Max."
So, I did contact Google about this. I sent them Max's question and I said, "I think this is something that needs to be addressed." And it's not just Google, it's everybody who is building virtual assistants and addressing accessibility issues. And by the way, Apple and other companies have been pretty good about creating accessibility applications on their phones. But generally, this is a problem. I was just reading something in Scientific American about how for individuals with severe speech disorders, technology's word recognition can be somewhere between "26.2 percent and 81.8 percent lower than for the general population." That's according to research that was published in speech communication. There's a lot of variation for people that have speech disorders, in Max's case a stutter. I'm wondering whether or not the tech companies are doing anything to really address this. Do we know?
IF: I think it's a reminder that we can't move to just one mode of interaction. I think voice technology actually helps a lot of people. It helps blind people, it helps a lot of people. But it leaves other people out and I think it's a reminder that technology to reach all of us needs to be multimodal. Voice is great for some things but we can't just say, "Yay, voice everything!" For a variety of reasons. And certainly speech challenges are one of those. But I think to your point, I think companies have gotten really good, especially the bigs ones, at adding accessibility. So voice is a godsend for a lot of visually impaired users. So let's not say speech is bad but let's remember that speech doesn't work for everyone.
I don't know if specifically Google or any other companies are addressing particular issues with speech like stuttering.
And accents can be a problem.
And accents. They are aggressively, aggressively trying to address different accents, both in English and other languages. In fact, we had a story not too long ago where they were farming out work to a company to get a bunch of Scottish people to come and speak at Google's computers for them to try and figure out the Scotch accent. So they're working on that. And I would like to think that the same sort of machine learning that helps for accents could help with other speech issues, but I don't know specifically that they're actively doing that yet.
LG: Google did get back to me with a statement from a spokesperson and said, "It's still early days for the Assistant and the products they just announced. Most questions to the Assistant are processed on Google's servers. Processing data in the cloud allows us to analyze patterns to make our services smarter, safer and more useful and this includes allowing us to provide better speech recognition that will continue to improve over time." So basically I got a stock answer about how it's going to get better over time. I pressed them on this. I said, "So you have no official statement that directly addresses people with speech disabilities?" And there's nothing that they're saying at this point beyond the general speech recognition overview that they've shared. And Google does occasionally put out data to say that they've improved the error rate. Apple does this as well. I think once the devices are actually out in the market, this may be one of those things like privacy, like multiple accounts on Google Home, that they're going to have to figure out how to address.
I've got to say one thing. Google's been using the phrase "it's early days," and it has got to stop. Whenever anybody says, "It’s early days," they mean one of two things. They mean, one, "We promise it's not too late for us to get into this market. It's okay, we're not too late, we promise." Or two, it means, "Yeah, the first version kind of sucks but it's okay because it's still early." Just stop saying it’s early days, seriously.
IF: I think that's an important point. I think also some of these products aren't going to be right. Like Home is going to be a voice interface. If speech isn't your preferred method of communication, it's probably not the best. I think where it's more important is on something like the phone that we not go too far down the path of voice-only control. And I think Apple added the ability to type in a Siri query.
Typing in a Siri query you can only correct the speech.
IF: Oh okay, well, you should be able to, then.
Yes, you should.
IF: For a variety of reasons, most importantly for people who have speech challenges but also people for whatever reason who don't want to talk into their phone. Maybe it's Cortana? I don't know. Someone let's you type in your speech query.
Yeah, Cortana does, I think.
LG: Well Max, thank you for sending in your question. I wish I had a better answer for you, I wish Google had a better answer for you, and then we could say definitively that this is something that might work better than some of the other voice assistants you've tried. But unfortunately I think it's one of those things where we're just going to have to keep trying.
IF: It is early days. [DB & LG groan]
LG: All right, so before I let you guys go, I wanted to talk briefly about the fact that the day we're taping this, Wednesday, October 5th, marks five years since Steve Jobs passed away. It's been kind of a wild five years in the technology world since then. We published some really great stuff on Recode this morning. Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher were talking about their interviews with Steve Jobs at the D conferences throughout the year, also the interview they did with Bill Gates and Steve Jobs together. There are excerpts from that on recode.net. You're definitely going to want to check that out. I guess I just wanted to briefly hear your thoughts. First of all, I would love to hear about where you both were when that news broke, October 5th, 2011, and also just get your ideas on where technology has gone since then.
IF: It's actually a really interesting story. I was on my way to see Scott McNealy, the former Sun Microsystems CEO, at his house. He was launching a new product called Weigh In. And to get reporters interested we were supposed to come to his house. He has this palatial house with a hockey rink and all this stuff. I was in the car, got the news, pulled over and started writing from a coffee shop.
I was living in California and The Verge hadn't quite launched but we still had "This Is My Next," which was a little blog we had before The Verge launched. We had to cover the story at "This Is My Next" so I went down to the Apple campus and there were just a bunch of people there and it was really sort of ... It was sad, obviously, and really interesting to see everybody, reporters, actually being respectful at the Apple campus instead of shoving each other around. There was a weird moment where an Apple fan showed up and played the bagpipes and it was all very somber, very surreal. Everybody was, I don't know, respectful in a way that usually you don't see at a big tech campus.
LG: I have this weird story that involves Walt Mossberg. I was working at the Wall Street Journal at the time, I was a video producer in the video department and we were focused on livestreaming a lot of video, which was sort of this novel idea at the time and now everybody livestreams from their smartphones.
So I got the news when I was at dinner and I ran back to the newsroom. It was myself and a bunch of other editors and we were trying to put together this live show as quickly as possible. And a couple of the Wall Street Journal editors said to me, "Could you call Mossberg and see if he's available to join us on this live show?" It was about 9 o'clock at night maybe at that point?
And the backstory, which is just a personal tangent, is that I was at this crossroads in my life where I had just gone to Hong Kong to interview for a job and I was seriously considering moving there. But at the same time, I'd been talking to Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher for months. I mean, about six or eight months I'd been talking to you guys, I'm looking at Ina right now because it was All Things D at the time, about possibly working for them. And they kept saying, "We'd really like to hire you but we don't have the headcount." Which is generally one of those things people say to you when they're blowing you off. But I really believed them, I trusted them.
IF: No, no, we really wanted you.
LG: I said, "No, they really don't have the headcount!" Because we were under the Dow Jones umbrella at the time and everything was sort of bureaucratic, but anyway. So I just kept saying, "Well, maybe they're going to come through with the offer, maybe they're going to come through with the offer." But in the meantime I'd interviewed for this job in Hong Kong and I was like, "I'm probably just going to move to Hong Kong." So I'm in the newsroom the night that Steve Jobs died, the Wall Street Journal newsroom, and I pick up the phone and I call Mossberg down in Washington and the first thing I said to him was, "I'm sorry." Because even though, you know, it was a source-to-reporter relationship that Walt had with Steve Jobs, it was a very long and close relationship. Steve would tell him things that maybe he wouldn't tell other reporters, and he appeared at conferences and Walt would get the Sunday night phone calls and all that stuff. So I expressed my condolences and then I said, "Can you come on this livestreaming show we're putting together from the Wall Street Journal newsroom?" And Walt said, "You know, I think I'd rather write right now."
And he did end up writing an essay that ran the next day. But he said, "I'll come on the show in the morning." And I said, "Okay, great, thanks very much." And then he said, "By the way, before I let you go, I got the headcount, do you want a job?"
LG: Meanwhile, my current bosses at the Wall Street Journal were standing right next to me, waiting with bated breath for Mossberg's response to see if he would come on the live show. And I just said, "Uh huh, okay, great, thanks very much, bye." And I hung up the phone because I couldn't actually have the conversation with him at that point about the job. We ended up putting on this livestreaming video, there were a bunch of people, Kevin Delaney was in it, Jessica Vascellaro (now Jessica Lessin). A bunch of us were there, all intersected at the Journal at the same time, and so that's what we did. And I ended up taking the job with Walt and Kara and the rest is history, as they say. I didn't move to China and now you're stuck with me.
LG: That was five years ago. And I remember feeling, about a week later, I remember having this feeling, I felt kind of down. And I didn't really know why, because I had just accepted a new job and generally you're very excited. And I had wanted to write for a long time and this was going to give me an opportunity to write, do less video, more writing, which was exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to write about consumer technology. And I felt really down and I said to a friend who also worked with me at the time, I said, "You know, I think — this sounds crazy — but I think I feel like things might be less exciting now that Steve Jobs has died."
Which sounds like a crazy and unimaginative to say, because anyone with any sense of imagination or just curiosity about the world will look around the tech industry and say, "There's so much exciting stuff happening." It doesn't all just hinge on whatever product Steve Jobs has invented. But it felt that way, that things weren't going to be as exciting.
IF: I feel like something is definitely missing. It doesn't mean innovation has stopped, it doesn't even mean innovation at Apple has stopped. But I think Steve was unique. I wrote an essay that day for All Things D, “The Three Irreplaceable Qualities of Steve Jobs.” This was someone I respected greatly for all the things he brought to Apple, but [we] did not have a close personal relationship. We had a contentious relationship. The few times I interviewed him he was usually telling me all the things that he didn't agree with and I was asking him hard questions that he didn't appreciate. But as a leader he had an innate sense of taste that was unlike any other that I knew. He had a couple misses, but in general he really knew what people wanted. And I think Apple could dearly use his sense of taste. I think there was no better marketer of something, he could sell it like no one else.
Yeah, and actually with that, the difference between innovation now and innovation five years ago when we had him was he could tell a better story about the innovation that crystallized what it meant, how you should think of it, how it was different and important. [With] almost every seminal Apple product that he unveiled, he didn't just say, "Here's a thing, it's really fast or it's really good." He would tell a really compelling human story that would put it in a context where it wasn't yet another gadget, it was an actual thing that you understood and could fit into your life. And nobody's really been as good at doing that particular kind of thing since he died.
IF: And then the third one that I don't want us to lose sight of is he drove people to be their best. And it wasn't fun for a lot of people that worked with him, but I do find myself noticing details on products and being like, "I wonder if this would have passed Steve."
LG: If this would have passed muster.
IF: It's way overused in tech to be like, "Steve Jobs never would have allowed this," and you know, we can't know. I do think it's safe to say that he pushed people harder than any executive I know. There's a lot of Type A personalities in Silicon Valley, he certainly wasn't unique in that. But people came up with great answers they didn't think were possible under Steve.
LG: It feels as though for the past five years we've all tried to figure out who the next Steve Jobs is and of course no one can live up to that. But there are lots of tech entrepreneurs that it's been written in articles where it's, I don't know, it's everything from Jack Dorsey to Elon Musk to the woman who founded Theranos and also wears black turtlenecks and people make these crazy sort of [comparisons].
IF: I think we've safely said that Elizabeth Holmes is not the next Steve Jobs.
LG: Right, right. I mean, do you think there is anybody right now in the tech industry who inspires in that same way?
I don't know. To anoint someone as a successor to Steve Jobs seems not possible. I mean, if there's anybody in the same solar system, it would probably be Elon Musk right now. But the thing that Elon Musk hasn't done that Steve Jobs did was ship millions and millions of things to millions and millions of people.
He hasn't pulled that off yet.
IF: I think the reason Elon gets compared so often is his vision is beyond what's in front of him. It's way out there. I think his vision is actually about changing society more broadly. You know, Steve Jobs was mostly interested in changing personal computing.
LG: Here on earth.
IF: Yeah. Elon wants to colonize other planets and change the way we drive. Those are actually bigger things, but I think similar in that huge ambition, relentless drive. When he talks he inspires you, he gets you excited about the future and the world in a way that few others do. I think those are the reasons for the comparisons, and there's not going to be another Steve Jobs. I think the smartest thing that Apple has done since is not try to replace Steve Jobs but try to do the best it can as a company without Steve Jobs.
LG: Well, thank you for sharing your memories and your insights and thank you to our listeners, by the way, for sticking with is. If you're still listening, that was a long Too Embarrassed to Ask. Dieter and Ina, we’d love to have you back on the show sometime soon.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.