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Google won’t let other companies use the Home Hub’s best feature

“Ambient EQ” underscores the tension between Google’s hardware ambitions and its third-party ecosystem.

Google won’t let other companies use the Home Hub’s best feature

When Google released the Home Hub smart display last October, product lead Ashton Udall was emphatic about the importance of a feature called Ambient EQ, which measures the room’s lighting conditions and adjusts the screen’s brightness and color temperature accordingly. This makes the Google Home Hub feel more natural as a picture frame, and avoids subjecting users to glowing blue screens in the evening.

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“Honestly, I don’t know how a company can claim that they really thought through designing a display for the home and the customer if they haven’t enabled an experience like this,” Udall told me at the time.

But even if other companies want to build Google Assistant-powered displays with Ambient EQ, they can’t. At the CES trade show in Las Vegas last week, Chris Turkstra, the director of product management for Google Assistant, confirmed to me that Ambient EQ is exclusive to Google’s own hardware.

“That particular technology is something that the Google hardware team has developed internally, and it’s used for that,” Turkstra said.

The exclusivity helps explain why the Lenovo Smart Clock, one of the neatest new gadgets at CES, won’t use Ambient EQ. The Smart Clock is designed for nightstands, with a four-inch display that can cycle through the time, calendar, traffic reports, and weather. It can also suggest wake-up times based on your schedule, and it avoids presenting sources of digital distraction. (You can’t, for instance, use it to watch YouTube.)

Ambient EQ would be perfect for this kind of bedside device, of which the Lenovo Smart Clock will be just the first. But even if Google did share the technology with partners, Turkstra notes that it requires a more expensive sensor. The Smart Clock, which will sell for $79 versus the $150 list price for Google’s Home Hub, will make do with a more basic ambient lighting sensor that can dim the display in darker environments, with the potential for color adjustments through software.

“There are a lot of other algorithms that could be employed for those types of things, but it’s unlikely that you’d see the exact Ambient EQ functionality on other hardware products,” Turkstra says.

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I’m torn about this. Clearly, Google wants to establish itself as a hardware maker, and offer features that other companies might not be thinking about. At the same time, withholding good ideas from the rest of the ecosystem risks alienating partners like Lenovo, which did a fine job bringing Google’s Smart Display concept to life last year. It also sends a mixed message to consumers about whether those third-party products are worth buying.

The idea that Google might instead license its Ambient EQ tech to other vendors isn’t unthinkable. In early 2017, rival Amazon released a far-field microphone reference design based on the company’s own Echo speakers, with the same beamforming technology and voice processing software. The goal was to help other companies bring better Alexa devices to market faster.

Like Amazon, Google wants the market to be filled with third-party devices running its own voice assistant software. Enlisting those partners is why the company was at CES in the first place.

“The first-party team can’t build everything, even if we wish they could sometimes, and so we really rely on our partners, especially to fill out areas where we just don’t have the investment or skills, or if a particular partner has a great passion or design,” Turkstra said. “So it’s a terrific way to make the portfolio full.”

Ambient EQ isn’t the only example of Google trying to carve out special features for its own hardware. Only Google’s Pixel phones, for instance, get unlimited Google Photos storage at full quality and the ability to auto-delete backed-up photos from the phone itself. The Google Assistant itself and the Google Lens augmented-reality feature also launched as Pixel exclusives before landing on other devices, and only Pixel users can use the new Call Screen feature that helps deal with telemarketers.

Google’s newer Pixel phones even have unique hardware in Visual Core, a custom image processing chip that enables neat camera features like Top Shot and Night Sight. The Pixel Stand, a wireless charging dock that adds smart display features to the Pixel 3, doesn’t work with other Android phones either.

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This approach makes a lot of sense in the Android world, where companies like Samsung already have plenty of market power and Google is just trying to establish itself. But as Google builds a new kind of ecosystem around Google Assistant, partners who can’t access the company’s best hardware ideas might reasonably wonder about their place within it.

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