October 4 marks the coming out of a new OEM inside Web search giant Google, as well as a pivot for consumer electronics to an era driven by machine-learning services running in the cloud.

The company launched two smartphones, a smart speaker, a virtual reality headset and a Wi-Fi access point. Its Pixel smartphones and Home smart speaker are the containers for its machine-learning Assistant, the company’s most strategic product of all.

Google is already in discussions with OEMs about embedding in their consumer electronics products the Assistant, a voice recognition and search client. The client code currently runs on a dual-core ARM Cortex-A7 with 256Mb RAM and 256Mb flash.

The devices debuted at a press event in San Francisco’s Ghirardelli Square. Quietly surveying the noisy scene of demo booths here, we saw David Foster, the former head of Amazon’s hardware group who joined Google two days ago as head of its hardware group.

Foster’s team at Lab126 was responsible for Amazon’s Kindle, Dash and Echo products. The Echo, already in a speaker-less $49 version, is well ahead of Google’s Home which won’t ship until November in a single $129 version.

Google DavidFoster Figure 1: Two days into his new job as head of Google's hardware group, David Foster, formerly of Amazon, made a low key appearance. (Images: EE Times)

In our chance encounter I asked Foster why he joined the search giant,

“It’s rare to find a moment when something this big is getting started,” said Foster. “Google is at the start of a long journey here,” he added.

It’s a journey that has big implications for OEMs. As Microsoft Windows did with PCs, the Web services from giants such as Amazon and Google threaten to hollow out their products as the key value-added ingredient.

Interestingly, Google’s new Pixel phones will be made by HTC, the Taiwan phone maker that once led the pack of Android OEMs.

AI assistants will be even more pervasive than OSes, appearing as a single service across cars, stereos, phones and more. They could spawn deep and nuanced ties with the ecosystems of the data centre operators who run them.

Google has been working with consumer OEMs for two years on supporting its Chromecast music devices. More recently it has started having discussions about embedding the client code for the Assistant.

Engineers and product managers here declined to provide any details on who is involved in those discussions, terms of licensing the code or when third-party products might emerge. They did show home automation products such as its Nest thermostats and Philips’ Hue lights responding to commands from Home via cloud-based APIs.

Scott Huffman, engineering lead for Google Assistant, previewed a software developer’s kit for it. The SDK will let developers automatically respond to commands from Home or engage in conversations through the device. The SDK will be released next year with more details about it revealed in December.

With the Assistant, the company aims to “build a personal Google for everyone,” said Sundar Pichai, Google’s CEO who kicked off the press event. “We are evolving from a mobile-first to an AI-first world,” he said.

It’s still early days in machine learning, Pichai added, noting stepwise progress in areas such as machine translation, text-to-speech and voice and image recognition. “One day we will notice the differences between Swiss German and German and even capture emotions,” he said.

Google NewProducts Figure 2: Google's initial product line up (from left) a Wi-Fi AP, Chromecast Ultra, Home and two Pixel phones.

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