SAN FRANCISCO -- Pushing further into the consumer electronics business, Google (GOOG) announced Wednesday that it will sell a new digital home entertainment console and a 7-inch tablet computer aimed at bolstering its competition with Apple (AAPL), Amazon and other rivals.
The giant Internet search company also showed off a host of new products and features for its Android mobile operating system, including new TV, film and magazine offerings in Google's online store, and a voice-enabled search function that is Google's answer to Apple's vaunted digital assistant Siri.
While those seem far removed from Google's core business of Internet search advertising, analysts say the new products are part of a strategy aimed at preserving Google's dominance in that lucrative business. To do that, it hopes to deliver a broad range of digital media -- books, music, films and other services -- within an ecosystem of Google products at a time when other companies are luring consumers with similar services.
"It's less about the hardware and more about the experience," said Richard Shim, a mobile-computing expert with NPD DisplaySearch. "They are pushing
Google also invoked its freewheeling roots during the kickoff of the company's annual three-day software conference. At one point, co-founder Sergey Brin bounded on stage at the Moscone Center to show off a pet project, the computer-in-a-headset known as Google Glass. A video screen behind him showed a team of sky divers inside a blimp flying over San Francisco, and the convention center audience cheered as the sky divers -- wearing the cyborg-looking Google Glass headsets -- leapt from the blimp and landed on the Moscone building's roof.
Images from their headsets were streamed over an Internet connection. The device, which can also receive data and messages, is still under development.
As expected, Google CEO Larry Page did not appear, after the company said last week that he lost his voice under undisclosed circumstances. Brin said Wednesday that he's "not worried" about Page, but "we didn't want to stress him out by having him talk a lot."
The most anticipated news of the day, however, was the unveiling of Google's new $199 Nexus 7 tablet, which will be manufactured by Asus according to Google's design, and sold by Google through its online Google Play store. Google is using the tablet to showcase the features of its newest Android software, known by the code-name Jelly Bean. Microsoft is following a similar strategy with its own tablet, showing off new Windows software.
"We wanted to provide the best of the Google experience, the way that Google envisions it," said Android product director Hugo Barra. The tablet has a high-definition display and enough processing power for fast-paced video games, the company said. But Google Play director Chris Yerga stressed that the tablet is also well-suited to reading magazines and books. That's a sign that Google is also positioning the Nexus 7 against Amazon's popular Kindle Fire, which to date is one of the few Android-based tablets that has sold particularly well.
Android is the world's most popular operating software for smartphones, but Apple has dominated the tablet market with its iPad, which runs on Apple's own software. Like Google, Amazon and Apple sell books, videos, music and other digital material over the Internet.
Google's new home entertainment console, dubbed Nexus Q, seems aimed at competing with similar streaming devices made by Apple, Sonos, Roku and others. While most consumer electronics devices sold in the United States are made by contractors in Asia, The New York Times reported that the Nexus Q is being assembled at an undisclosed Silicon Valley location.
The bowling-ball shaped console can be controlled from an Android smartphone or tablet. But analyst Patrick Moorhead of Moor Insights & Strategy said he's skeptical it will be a hit because its $299 price is higher than competing devices with similar capabilities.
While Google doesn't have much practice making and selling its own hardware -- other than a Nexus phone that was not a success two years ago -- Google has put years of work into developing voice-recognition technology. It already offers voice-enabled translation and navigation services. The new voice-enabled features in Jelly Bean go further by answering spoken questions with a natural-sounding female voice.
In a demonstration, it appeared to function in a manner similar to Apple's Siri. Analysts have warned that Siri could be a threat to Google's core Internet search business if users of Apple devices find it easier to simply talk to their iPhones rather than type in a Google query. "Google has to do something just as good with voice because that may be where search is going for mobile devices," said Al Hilwa, a software industry analyst with IDC.
From the demonstration, it wasn't clear how wide a range of questions can be answered by Google's voice search service. Executives also showed another new search feature in Jelly Bean, called Google Now, which provides automatic updates on information the user has previously searched for -- such as the status of an airline flight or the score of a baseball game. Executives said the service is only available for certain types of queries, although they plan to add more capabilities in the future.
Contact Brandon Bailey at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow him at Twitter.com/BrandonBailey.
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