Google is beginning to look and feel a lot like Apple

SAN FRANCISCO — If Google's product bonanza Tuesday seemed familiar — a new line of pricey smartphones, a snazzy voice-activated service and a virtual-reality headset — it wasn't by accident.

The hardware-software double play was decidedly Apple-like. It's no coincidence because, frankly, Google is beginning to look, and feel, a lot more like Apple. And that could mean a major shake-up in a tech industry roiled by questions over Apple's innovation and declining iPhone sales, exploding Samsung Galaxy Note 7 smartphones, an expected sale of Twitter, and a mad scramble by nearly everyone else to bolster their cloud-computing services.

“The market has co-opted the Apple playbook in some ways,” says Matthew Quint, director of the Center on Global Brand Leadership at Columbia Business School. From a design perspective, he said, Google's new Pixel phone "is as close as possible in look to an iPhone than anyone, including Samsung.”

(Google has aligned with Samsung in the latter’s patent design dispute with Apple that goes before the U.S. Supreme Court next week.)

There is a sea change at the Googleplex in Mountain View, Calif., with a product strategy and approach straight out of the playbook at Infinite Loop in Cupertino, Calif.

In short, Google is constructing a digital empire of devices and services, run from one platform, to compete with Apple's cohesive, polished ecosystem. It is developing a system to control sleek consumer-electronic products, software and services.

In other words, the days of Google's fragmented Android approach are over.

"Google seems to have finally embraced the old maxim that if you're serious about software, you need to make your own hardware," says Jan Dawson, chief analyst at Jackdaw Research. The Pixel line, Dawson says, is "a recognition that the best hardware products come from the companies that make the operating systems, which has been Apple's strategy all along — and Microsoft's more recently with the Surface and phones."

And, based on Tuesday's small sample size, it seems a wise path: Google is creating a more uniform experience for users.

The strategic gambit is exemplified in Pixel and Pixel XL, Google's new smartphone product line. Priced at an iPhone-like $649 ($769 for the XL), the sleek phones represent an improvement from their predecessor, Nexus, which at times seemed like a hobby rather than product line. HTC is assembling the new Google phones.

The phones featured high-end specs. But the real bragging rights came from the Google Assistant, Google's version of Siri that, as Google would point out, leverages the artificial intelligence and machine learning its been developing for years — through its PC-based search then through its extensive mapping and finally in efforts like AlphaGo, the program that beat a human champion at a notoriously difficult game board game.

It was hard not to see the litany of examples of what Assistant could do in the light of Apple's improved but still-limited Siri digital assistant.

The new phones also touted nifty features: cameras that snap photos faster; longer battery life; and free, unlimited storage, the kind of shopping list Apple likes to trot out at its product launches to oohs and aahs. . A video promoting the Pixel also embraced something now missing on iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus: "3.5-mm headphone jack satisfyingly not new." In the background, someone coughs "ahem."

Google had more fun at the expense of Apple, poking fun at its South Bay neighbor by announcing Pixel comes in three colors — quite black, very silver and really blue. Several weeks earlier, Apple unfurled the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus in black and jet black.

Google rounded out its bag of goodies with Google Assistant, a super-smart digital helper; a new Home Internet-connected speaker device; a WiFi system; and Daydream View, a VR headset.

It's the sort of hardware-software treasure trove that Steve Jobs once imagined, and spoke of.

Google's gambit isn't unique, nor is it flawless. Its retail strategy has struggled in getting gadgets to consumers, and it does not have stores, as Apple does, to display its wares. But it does have apparent momentum at a time when its smartphone rivals face obstacles.

As Creative Strategies analyst Ben Bajarin points out, Google and Microsoft — with its Surface table strategy combining hardware and software — are emulating Apple. "It is a recognition that tightly integrating hardware and software will always yield the best customer experience," he says.




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