Google Event Preview

Tomorrow, Google will be announcing a range of new devices as well as finalizing the latest version of Android, code-named “Marshmallow”. At this point, a great deal is known about what will be announced, based on leaks and reporting from various Android blogs, including the names of the two Nexus phones and some of the details of the new Chromecast devices. However, it’s worth putting all these things in context.

Chromecasts for video and audio

The new Chromecast is supposed to offer faster WiFi, a new design, and possibly some other features as well. In general, however, it’ll be broadly the same product Google has offered until now – a device almost entirely reliant on a smartphone or other smart device to feed it content, in marked contrast to the smart TV boxes sold by Apple, Roku, and others. This more smartphone and search-centric approach is a good fit for Google’s overall strategy and the dirt cheap pricing ($35) has also helped to shift a large number of Chromecast devices up to this point. Chromecasts have been some of the best-selling devices in this category over the past 18 months or so, outselling Apple TV and Roku in some markets.

But, of course, the Chromecast is only one prong of Google’s two-pronged strategy with the TV. Android TV being the other. That strategy has so far largely failed to take off, despite a number of partnerships with OEMs, so it’s arguably a good thing Google has the Chromecast as well. However, with both Amazon and Apple pursuing a very different strategy for the television, it remains to be seen whether the Chromecast can allow Google to keep up over the long term. The only thing the Chromecast can do is cast content from a smartphone, tablet, or computer to the television. It can’t in and of itself serve as a gaming console or an independent video consumption box. As such, it’s never going to have a hope of achieving the single-input dream Apple and Amazon are aiming for. And yet, given how much content we now discover on our smartphones, it also cleverly circumvents the problems of content discovery and search Amazon and Apple have struggled in the past to overcome. While its two competitors now use voice to get around the awkwardness of text input on the television, Google simply uses a device better suited to such input – the smartphone.

Then there’s the audio version of the Chromecast, which will perform some of the same functions but for audio devices like stereos and standalone speaker systems. In some ways, it promises to do for the audio category what the existing Chromecast did for video – offer some of the same functionality as far more expensive systems like Sonos for far less money. I almost wonder whether we’ll see Google offering multi-packs of Chromecast audio devices so people can buy them for multiple rooms in their homes. Pricing will be very interesting too – there’s no reason to expect this device to cost more than the existing Chromecast and it’s quite possible it’ll cost even less. With the addition of audio functionality, Chromecast (and the Google Cast technology) will have landed in much the same place as Apple’s AirPlay, albeit in the opposite order (video first, then audio).

Nexus phones

It now seems almost certain the two Nexus phones will be made by LG and Huawei, and called the 5X and 6P respectively. I wrote a few days back about the role Nexus phones play in Google’s strategy, so I won’t rehash that. However, I will add one data point. Carolina Milanesi of Kantar Worldpanel was kind enough to supply me with this tidbit: Nexus phones account for around 0.8% of the Android installed base in the markets Kantar tracks. That gives you some sense of the size (or lack thereof) of the Nexus phone base – it’s an afterthought, well behind all the devices from major manufacturers. And yet at the same time, it’s contributed somewhat to one of the big challenges facing the major Android OEMs: by pricing these devices aggressively, Google has helped to undercut some of its most important partners, especially in those years when the Nexus devices have had decent specs.

This is the first year Google will have two Nexus phones and it looks like the 5X will have the more modest specs while the 6P will have better performance, more on par with higher-end devices. What’s interesting is the reasons people buy Nexus phones – again, according to Kantar data – is largely about price and promotions, rather than about the stock Android experience which is ostensibly the key selling point. It’s curious, then, that Google is broadening the range of devices it’s offering under the Nexus umbrella, since this just means it’ll be competing with its OEM partners across several categories. This is also a big break for Huawei, who have really struggled to break into the US market in a big way, beyond prepaid.

Marshmallow

Marshmallow is a fairly modest update to Android, and it’s interesting that it’s landing in the same year as Apple’s iOS 9, which also focuses more heavily on polish and bug fixes than dramatic new features. Google Now on Tap is probably the headline new feature and I’d expect Google to make a great deal out of this during the announcement. Support for fingerprint sensors and Android Pay are also likely to be important elements which Google will play up, both in talking about Marshmallow and showing off the new phones. Google Now on Tap made for some impressive demos at I/O when it was first announced and I’m curious to see how it has evolved since then. Of course since that time, Apple has announced iOS 9 and the Proactive features within Siri, including some context-based ones. But these still fall short of what Google is doing with Now on Tap. One of my biggest concerns with Now on Tap has been the way in which Google appears to be trying to get users back out of apps and into its own domains (whether search, through app linking, or through Google Now), and I’m curious to see how it frames these new features during the event.

Of course, the reality is Marshmallow will be available to almost no Android users for the foreseeable future – the previous version, Lollipop, only became the second most popular version of Android this month, almost a year after launch, while KitKat, the version launched almost two years ago, remains the most popular. Despite some promises users would see faster upgrades to new versions, Google continues to struggle to make this happen in reality, thanks to OEMs and carriers who slow down the process with their customizations and certification processes respectively.

Lastly, I’m interested to see if we hear anything more about Google’s Brillo project at the event – the timeframe for this Internet-of-Things-focused spinoff of Android was supposed to be around the same as for Marshmallow, but I haven’t heard much about it since I/O. Google did launch its OnHub wireless router a few weeks back and that takes advantage of the Weave communication protocol that’s part of Brillo, but that’s about it for news so far. Hopefully, we’ll hear a little bit more about the timeline for Brillo at the event too.

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Jan Dawson

Jan Dawson is Founder and Chief Analyst at Jackdaw Research, a technology research and consulting firm focused on consumer technology. During his sixteen years as a technology analyst, Jan has covered everything from DSL to LTE, and from policy and regulation to smartphones and tablets. As such, he brings a unique perspective to the consumer technology space, pulling together insights on communications and content services, device hardware and software, and online services to provide big-picture market analysis and strategic advice to his clients. Jan has worked with many of the world’s largest operators, device and infrastructure vendors, online service providers and others to shape their strategies and help them understand the market. Prior to founding Jackdaw, Jan worked at Ovum for a number of years, most recently as Chief Telecoms Analyst, responsible for Ovum’s telecoms research agenda globally.

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