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Leaving one’s comfort zone: What can we learn from the Google Pixel 4?

Let’s say your company has developed very strong expertise that could be applied to other use cases or markets than those you’ve successfully pursued. That makes it very tempting to expand. However, while some companies do this successfully, a large number of others learn through the school of hard knocks that applying their technology to previously unchartered territory is a lot harder than they’d thought. Especially when they move from being a software to a hardware or a cloud company, or v.v.

Here are a few examples:

  • Hardware company aspiring to also become a cloud company: how long did it take Apple to finally get iCloud (mostly) right? Remember PhotoStream and MobileMe?
  • Software company aspiring to also become a cloud company: Adobe tried this with Adobe Revel, but stopped the service up after a few years.
  • Social media cloud company aspiring to also become a hardware company: Facebook is trying to accomplish this with its Portal video-chatting devices, but we don’t see much adoption as of yet.
  • Social media cloud company aspiring to also become a hardware (AR glasses) company: Snapchat is also struggling to get its Spectacles AR glasses adopted by more than their hardcore fans.
  • Cloud company aspiring to also become a camera company: Google tried this with Google Clips, an AI-powered camera without a viewfinder that saw little traction in the market.
  • Camera/printer company aspiring to also become a cloud photosharing company: Canon tried this with Irista and Lifecake; neither of which have become major players in the world of photo sharing as of yet.
  • Photo print company aspiring to also become a photo cloud company: Shutterfly tried this with its ThisLife service, which has since been discontinued.
  • Photo cloud company aspiring to also become a photo print company: Photobucket tried this with its PrintShopLab offering but divested this part of their business.

The list goes on.

And yet some companies do successfully branch out – eventually. The best example is Amazon, who at first failed with their Fire Phone but are now succeeding with Kindle, Alexa, Echo, Ring, AWS, and a bunch of other products and services.

In our photo/video ecosystem, Google raised eyebrows when they first decided to enter the hardware space with their Pixel phone back in 2016. Yes, a lack of broad carrier distribution has hampered its initial growth but with the new Pixel 4 announced yesterday again drawing accolades – in particular for its camera features – plus its expanded carrier network, it’s interesting to examine how Google is competing with dedicated hardware companies that have device development in their DNA (Apple, Samsung, and Huawei).

Both Pixel 4 phones will come in three colors, including the Just Black, Clearly White and a limited edition Oh So Orange. © Google
Both phones will come in three colors, including the Just Black, Clearly White and a limited edition Oh So Orange. © Google

For those who may have missed the Pixel 4 camera feature announcements, here are some of the main items:

  • Besides the existing 12-megapixel f/1.7 main camera, the Pixel 4 adds a 16-megapixel f/2.4 telephoto camera. The Pixel 4 will use a combination of optical zoom via the telephoto camera, and the “Super Res Zoom” software introduced on the Pixel 3 to deliver sharp images. To the user, it feels like having a continuous zoom lens.
  • The addition of a telephoto camera also enables photographers to take “background blur” pictures of objects farther awayas well as taking nearby “portrait mode” photos that the Pixel generates through a single camera and a fair dose of computational photography.
  • A new astrophotography mode allows users to take long exposure shots of the stars by leveraging computational photography that combines multiple shots and reduces noise.
  • new chip, the Pixel Neural Core, does a lot of the on-device processing needed for computational photography. This enables, for instance, Live HDR+, a real-time preview of what the photo will look like after HDR is applied. Live HDR+ offers two separate sliders to adjust the overall brightness of the image, as well as the rendering of shadows. This means you can brighten a shadowed face in the foreground without worrying you’ll wash out the sky behind.
  • AI-trained white balance correction helps to avoid color casts.

(the reviews are still coming in, but this and this gives an indication of the Pixel’s 4 new photo features).

The question then is: how does a cloud-based company like Google go about developing a phone like the Pixel 4, and effectively competing with formidable hardware-rooted incumbents?

Visual 1st conference
Visual 1st conference

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At Visual 1st, my partner Alexis Gerard and I had the pleasure of diving into that question and others during our fireside chat session with Alexander Schiffhauer, who leads Google’s computational photography team and was previously Google CEO Sundar Pichai’s technology advisor. Perhaps most telling in this context, Alexander emphasized Google’s proclaimed motto: To create experiences that adapt to their customers, and not the other way around. Therefore Google does not place its primary focus on either hardware, or software, or even AI. Rather it believes its best strategy is to deliver value at the intersection of hardware, software and AI.

This also leads to a second motto at Google: less is more, in particular when it comes to hardware. If you can do more with software or AI while getting the same or better results, do so – rather than adding more weight, size or costs to the phone. This explains why Google held out for a single rear camera design when its high-end smartphone competitors started adding lenses and have only now added a telephoto lens for use cases where software and computational photography didn’t suffice – namely providing farther optical-quality zooming, as well as enabling background blurring for more distant subjects.

The takeaway? If you define your company primarily around customer experiences, your technology base (whether hardware, software, or AI) is likely to migrate more organically and effectively over time than if you were to define yourself in terms of the platform categories that currently drive your business. Branching out becomes a whole lot easier.

And a few more things…

Circle Graphics. Congratulations to Visual 1st Gold sponsor Circle Graphics, which received a significant growth investment from H.I.G. Capital on the eve of the 2019 edition of Visual 1st. H.I.G. is a leading global private equity investment firm with over $34 billion of equity capital under management.

SpotMyPhotos. Visual 1st Show & Tell presenter SpotMyPhotos has become the first company to integrate Canon’s Camera Control Application Program Interface (CCAPI) software into its AI-powered instant-photo sharing solution. SpotMyPhotos event photographers enable event attendees to instantly receive all photographs in which they’re shown.

Forever Connected. At Visual 1st, Forever Connected announced a solution for photobook providers, allowing them to have their customers order additional photo products from their photobook PDFs, thus turning these digital versions of the photobooks into shareable, interactive, e-commerce catalogs.

Canon. Is Canon reinventing the point and shoot? Hmm, Canon is releasing the IVY REC: a screen-less, clippable, waterproof, point-and-shoot camera that is meant to look rugged (but to me looks plasticky). $130.

Hipstamatic returns with new free app and updated analog camera styles for iOS
Hipstamatic returns with a new free app and updated analog camera styles for iOS

Hipstamatic. Photo app pioneer Hipstamatic (who produced retro photo filters to compensate for the mediocre quality of iPhone photos in bygone times) is going vintage again. Its new iOS Hipstamatic X analog camera app offers users access to image filters that imitate the look of many retro analog cameras. It automatically picks the perfect effect depending on what you are shooting.

Explorest. Last year’s Visual 1st presenter Explorest hit the airwaves, discussing in an interview where, when, and how its app teaches photographers to take the best photos.

PastBook. Visual 1st Gold sponsor and panel participant PastBook made it onto the Deloitte Technology Fast50 2019 list of the fastest-growing Dutch technologies companies ((#3 overall; #1 in the Media & Entertainment category).

Visual 1st. In case you missed it: 2019 Visual 1st Awards went to Bellus3D, Skylum, GotPhoto, and Generated Photos.

 

Main Photo by Oleg Magni from Pexels

Author: Hans Hartman

Hans Hartman is president of Suite 48 Analytics, the leading research and analysis firm for the mobile photography market and organizer of Mobile Visual 1st, a yearly industry conference about mobile photography.


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