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Google’s hardware chief says the Pixel will hold its own against the iPhone

Rick Osterloh makes it clear: Google is focused on the high end of the smartphone business.


Make no mistake about it, Google’s hope for the Pixel is to have a device that can rival Apple’s iPhone.

At $649, it had better, since it costs just as much. But Google says it is an iPhone competitor in more than just price, even challenging Apple in areas Google has traditionally been weaker, such as in photography.

In an interview after Tuesday’s event, Google hardware chief Rick Osterloh said he fully expects consumers to hold the new phone up to Apple’s latest.

"I think they can, should and will," he told Recode. "If someone is a Google user this is the best phone for them without a doubt."

The phone, which was introduced Tuesday, offers a slate of high-end specifications, including the latest Snapdragon 821 chip from Qualcomm, a fingerprint reader and high-resolution OLED display. Beyond that, it offers a built-in personal assistant and a system that backs up all photos and videos at full resolution to Google Photos, ensuring the Pixel never runs out of space.

Of course, Google won’t be competing just against Apple, but also all of Google’s Android partners, a list that includes market leader Samsung, former subsidiary Motorola as well as Taiwan’s HTC, which is doing the actual manufacturing of the Pixel.

So why, again, is Google building its own hardware?

Osterloh started Tuesday’s event by rhetorically asking the same question, noting that it is what he gets asked the most. And, even after an impressive slate of new products, the answer remains unclear.

Yes, the new Google Assistant is nice, but wouldn’t it work just as well on a Nexus phone whose hardware wasn’t Google-designed?

With Daydream VR, Google has said it is making the headset design available to others. Is Google’s ability to choose soft, cozy fabrics really that keen?

Finally, with Google Home, the company is offering up a much needed rival to Amazon’s Echo, but, as Osterloh confirmed, Google is happy to license Google’s assistant to other speaker makers. That means that ultimately, lots of other companies could build products similar to Google Home.

Which brings us back to the same question: Why is Google building its own hardware?

Osterloh stressed that the company felt it couldn’t properly build the voice assistant without also doing some hardware incorporating the technology.

"If you want to push the innovation edge, you need to do it building hardware and software together in some areas," Osterloh said.

Google espoused similar opinions to justify its Nexus program, in which it developed new Android versions alongside a lead hardware device made by a partner. That program, though, gave its hardware partners both more branding and more freedom in the physical hardware design.

Last year’s Nexus phone from LG, for example, looked more like that company’s other products than it did the Nexus phone from Huawei. The Motorola-built Nexus 6, meanwhile, closely resembled the design of the Moto X.

But Nexus is dead, Osterloh confirmed. In its place, the Pixel program is designed to have Google’s take on hardware design as well as software. Google won’t be setting up manufacturing operations, though, relying on various Asian hardware makers for those duties.

With the Pixel phone’s camera, for example, Osterloh said the company not only wrote the software, but picked the sensor and helped develop the lens.

"That combined work made it so we could develop a really terrific camera," he said.

Still, Osterloh stressed that Google isn’t trying to be all things to all people when it comes to smartphones. It is focused on a few key markets and is aiming solely at the premium segment. "That’s the plan right now," Osterloh said. "We feel we have the most innovation we can bring to bear in the high-end space."

Osterloh has also been working to narrow the company’s overall hardware projects to a manageable number. "Let’s focus on things that really help move Google’s strategy and agenda forward," Osterloh said he told the team. "That meant certain projects just didn’t fit, frankly."

The only widely known project to get the ax was Project Ara, the company’s modular phone effort. But Osterloh confirmed he canceled several other projects either in their early stages or on the drawing board. "There were a number of them," he said, declining to offer any other details.

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