Google's most exciting new gadget is neither phone nor tablet

The most interesting, inventive, and impactful launch of the week isn't what you'd expect.

Google New Device
JR Raphael, IDG

Boy, oh boy, it's been a busy week for Google.

The Big G launched a series of brand spankin' new models for both of its flagship product lines this past Tuesday: the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL on the phone side and then the Pixel Slate on the Chrome OS end of the equation. A new Home Hub command center made its debut, too, and an updated Chromecast even quietly crept into the picture.

All of that stuff is certainly fine — heck, some of it may even warrant a good old-fashioned wallet-opening exercise — but you know what? None of it is especially exciting.

I don't mean that in a bad way, either; it's just the nature of mobile tech hardware these days. The Pixel phones are more about software than anything, and these new devices are mostly incremental updates to keep the hardware feeling fresh. The Pixel Slate, meanwhile, is really just an alternate version of the Pixelbook — with a detachable keyboard instead of a swiveling hinge (and all the talk about Google turning Chrome OS into an Android-like tablet platform is certainly something, but it's also nothing new for those of us who have been paying attention).

As for the Home Hub? Well, it's just Google's own self-made and minimally different version of the Smart Displays announced earlier this year and already released by other manufacturers. And the Chromecast — well, to be honest, I don't think anyone quite knows what makes this new model meaningfully different from the last, aside from some subtle visual tweaks that you'll never see once the thing's tucked behind your television.

These are all expected and necessary progressions, in other words — and products plenty of people will no doubt enjoy — but they aren't truly transformational or awe-inspiring in any way. Only one device from this week's event fits that bill, and it's a device you'd be forgiven for forgetting.

I'm talking about Google's wireless Pixel Stand charger — a $79 accessory that's easy to write off as an inconsequential money-grab. Who cares about accessories, after all? They're usually the side show and worth little more than a cursory glance.

The Pixel Stand, however, isn't your average accessory. And it's much more significant than it appears on the surface.

Sound crazy? Maybe. But let me explain.

Blurred lines

The Pixel Stand isn't just a place to set your phone for charging. Sure, it does provide your phone with power — but its actual purpose is something far grander.

When you place a Pixel 3 onto a Pixel Stand, the phone effectively transforms into a stationary interface for interacting with the Google Assistant — not just from a spoken command perspective but also in a visual and touch-centric model. When a phone makes contact with the Pixel Stand, you see, the device automatically launches into a special new custom Assistant mode.

Google Pixel Stand Google

And it really is designed to be an optimal Assistant interface for any environment: A phone on the Pixel Stand can show you contextual info based on the time of day — perhaps offering up a visual rundown of your agenda along with weather and personalized traffic info in the morning and then serving up shortcuts for recipes and alarm settings later in the day. It can show images from your Google Photos gallery and even pop up smart home data — feeds from a Nest video doorbell, for example — whenever that becomes relevant.

And, of course, the Pixel-Stand-clad Assistant always listens for your voice commands and responds both audibly and with touch-ready info on its display.

In other words, this plain-looking little gizmo turns your phone into a full-fledged Smart Display, only using a screen and series of microphones you already have on you instead of requiring you to own a whole other device. And it introduces some neat new tricks into the process, too — like the ability to wake you up with a sunrise-emulating light progression on the screen, if you use the stand by your bed, and the ability to differentiate between multiple Pixel Stands and adjust its behavior accordingly.

That last part is particularly noteworthy — and it's a really interesting technological feat: Google apparently came up with a way to let the Pixel Stand communicate with phones via the wireless charging signal. That allows the phone to detect which Pixel Stand it's connecting to and then respond with the appropriate environment.

So if you had a Pixel Stand by your bed, it might know to show photos of your family but to avoid bothering you with your work calendar. If you had a second stand in your office, it might show your agenda info along with nature photos instead. And if you set your phone on a random wireless charger in a friend's house or public venue, it wouldn't do anything at all (other than, y'know, charge).

The other side of the story

Utility aside, it's important to think about the implications of this from Google's point of view — because in the big picture perspective we so enjoy considering in these cozy quarters, that angle is incredibly significant. Google, remember, is all about getting people to use Assistant these days. It's why I've dubbed this the post-OS era: More than any app, operating system, or platform, the Google of today wants you to get invested with Assistant. All that other stuff increasingly just serves to direct you into Assistant's waiting (virtual) arms.

Google hasn't been shy about admitting that, either: The company's head hardware honcho, Rick Osterloh, outright described his main mission as finding ways "to get Google Assistant in front of people and build a sustainable business around it" (paraphrased words from a profile earlier this year).

As I've noted before, the underlying logic seems to be that the future is less about typing into the traditional search box on a page and more about interacting with the electronics around you. And if Google Assistant is the genie inside those electronics — whether we're talking about your phone, your computer, your TV, or the screen you touch and talk to at different points during your day — well, at the end of the day, you're still a Google customer. And that means Google still has the connection to you that allows it to show ads targeted to your interests all over the internet.

To that end, Google's been working hard trying to get Assistant everywhere it can. But you know what's easier than getting people to buy standalone gadgets for interacting with Assistant in various parts of their homes and offices? Yup, you guessed it: creating a simple stand that turns the gadget everyone already has into an optimal Assistant interface.

With the Pixel Stand, Google has managed to morph its latest phone into something much more than a mobile device. It's essentially a modern twist on the old (and never particularly compelling) phone-into-a-laptop docking concept — one that's catered more closely to current computing patterns and that more effectively serves Google's current business needs.

The lines, they are a-blurrin'. And it's all because of one simple-seeming $79 accessory.

Sign up for my weekly newsletter to get more practical tips, personal recommendations, and plain-English perspective on the news that matters.

AI Newsletter

[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]

Copyright © 2018 IDG Communications, Inc.

Bing’s AI chatbot came to work for me. I had to fire it.
Shop Tech Products at Amazon