Google Home.
Google Home.


You know the cliché that if you're not paying for the product, you are the product? It has its roots in a critique of the television industry, but it's been more recently revived as a caveat about free online services such as Facebook's and Google's.

Will OremusWill Oremus

There's something to the notion that free, ad-supported products are really vehicles for delivering consumers to advertisers. Like any maxim, however, it's a little too pat. There are, of course, free services that don't sell their users to advertisers. And then there are products that you pay for that still sell their users to advertisers.

Two of Google's new flagship hardware devices, which the company announced in San Francisco on Tuesday, belong to this latter category. At first glance, both the Pixel smartphone and the Home smart speaker look a lot like the other leading devices in their respective categories. Specifically, the Pixel closely resembles the iPhone in both form and function, while Home rather shamelessly mimics Amazon's recent surprise hit, the Echo. As with the Echo, it's a roughly cylindrical speaker that rests on a desk or countertop and responds to your voice commands, such as "OK Google, play a song by the Weeknd."

Yet Google's purpose in building these devices is fundamentally different than Apple's or Amazon's.

Apple builds the iPhone in order to sell iPhones, which it does in huge numbers and to the tune of world-historical profits. The iPhone's software, iOS, serves the same purpose—selling iPhones, that is—and is well-adapted to the task.

Amazon's goal with the Echo is slightly less clear-cut. It's hard to say whether the device is meant to be profitable in itself or exists just to lure customers into Amazon's vast shopping and media ecosystem. (The Echo pipes a range of other services, but it works most seamlessly if you subscribe to Amazon Prime.) It may well turn out to do both. Either way, the business model involves buying stuff from Amazon.

It's possible that Google envisions making lots of money from the sales of Pixel and Home, and certainly they both have the power to nudge users toward Google's own subscription services. Home, for instance, will retail for $129 and come with a six-month subscription to YouTube Red, the company's ad-free video and music service. That's a smart and significant play on Google's part, because Home could help YouTube Red gain a foothold on people's television sets. At its launch event Tuesday, Google introduced the term "voicecasting," which is when you use Home to control your TV or home speaker system via Chromecast or Chromecast Audio. This is a space where Google is competing directly with Amazon, which has emphasized voice control in its Fire TV devices and allows you to control home speakers via the Echo Dot.

But unlike Apple or Amazon, selling things to consumers has never been Google's primary game. Google is involved in a lot of different businesses, but these days it specializes in two: artificial intelligence (which, by my loose definition, includes search) and advertising. The two are closely related. Google uses A.I. to understand people's language and intent (as in search queries) and to customize its products to their habits and preferences (as with Nest thermostats, Inbox Smart Reply, or Google Calendar's Goals). It then harnesses this knowledge to target users with advertisements.

Google launched the Pixel on Tuesday with a lot of boasts about its camera. That's wise, because a good camera is a feature that lots of people understand and value in a phone. But Google also billed its new smartphone as "the first phone with Google Assistant built in," and I strongly suspect that showcasing Google Assistant is the company's larger motive in creating the device.

The same goes for Home, which is to Google Assistant as Amazon's Echo is to Alexa. Like Alexa, Google Assistant is always listening, and when you activate Home by saying "OK Google," it's Google Assistant you'll be talking to. In a demonstration video, Google showed the device responding to queries ranging from "OK Google, dim the lights" to "OK Google, do babies dream?" to "OK Google, watch Stranger Things on my TV."

Google Assistant itself may not be much of a selling point for the average consumer, at least judging by the tepid reaction to the company's recently launched messaging app Allo, which also features Google Assistant. (The awkward name, which is nowhere near as memorable as Alexa, Siri, or Cortana, surely doesn't help.) But it's a big selling point for Google, because the company views Google Assistant as its core product of the future: an A.I.-powered agent that can do anything from open apps to control home appliances to manage your calendar to answer questions about the world. It's an extension of what Google has always done with search, and it's not hard to see how it positions the company's advertising business to target us more effectively and ubiquitously than ever.

If Google Home proves more capable than the Echo at responding intelligently to a wide range of queries—and I suspect it will, given Google's expertise in search and natural language—then it might not matter that it has a dumb name. Amazon pioneered the smart speaker category, but Google may be best equipped to perfect it. That could go a long way toward establishing Google Assistant as the new Google search—your default portal to the online realm. (Apple, meanwhile, is trying to do much the same with Siri, but A.I. has never been Cupertino's strong suit.) How exactly Google will monetize it, the company will have to figure out: Selling ads against search queries is one obvious possibility. Regardless, the history of the Internet suggests that if a company finds a way to monopolize a given type of online behavior, piles of money will follow.

Pixel and Home, in short, are not just a smartphone and a smart speaker. They're vessels for Google Assistant, and by extension, they're portals for Google's advertising business. This is not to say they won't be wonderful products in their own right, well worth the price tag. Just remember that said price tag does not include the additional value you'll be delivering to Google by letting its Assistant into your pocket and your living room, where it will be doing its best to become part of the family.