Google has dabbled in hardware on and off for years. Yesterday’s announcements – new smartphones, headphones, wireless speakers and more – signal a strong commitment to being a key player in consumers’ ecosystems and lives today and looking forward. This is the second straight year that Google rolled out updated products just ahead of the holiday season. Doing so says, “Hey, we can be a player in consumer electronics.”

It also signals an interest in competing head on with Apple, Samsung and others. In the past, Google has offered an operating system (Android), platforms and toolkits to developers. Now Google is making a play that looks and feels more like Apple where it acknowledges that delivering great experiences today takes owning more of the ecosystem or value chain. Google isn’t content to either give up direct access to consumers to its competitors or rely on them to deliver Google’s vision of the future. And it shouldn’t. The world’s largest Android smartphone manufacturer – Samsung (still) – is rolling out its own voice or virtual assistant and services such as payments, media and more.

The impact of Google’s announcements is still uncertain. Whether Google is ready to step up and compete head on with other device manufacturers depends as much on the consumer experience, services and ecosystem partners as the hardware alone. Google is more likely to pull share from other Android manufacturers in the near term than dip into Apple’s market.

Here’s what it will take to compete in the consumers’ broader device and services ecosystem:

  • Hardware parity is tablestakes – not a differentiator. Apple, Google, Samsung and others will continue to leapfrog one another (barely) with their annual product announcements and updates. In the smartphone, three key components matter: screen, camera and processor chips, including those facilitating the use of artificial intelligence (AI). Screen matters because most things consumers do on the smartphone still involve a touchscreen – plus, they spend more time watching video than almost any other activity. Cameras matter for photos and future experiences in augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR). AI hardware will be essential to great experiences – not big step function improvements in usability, but all the little stuff that adds up to the consumer saying, “Wow, I love this. This is so much better than the phone I had two years ago.”
  • Ease of use on devices delivered through AI and other emerging technologies. The future of digital or mobile services – including voice – is one where content or services components are dynamically assembled and pushed out to the consumer when the consumer needs them. These experiences are right-sized – not giant monolithic apps – and customized for the end user. When consumers do pick up a device to do something, they are very task-oriented on mobile devices: they want to get in, get something done and get back out. The hardware companies and/or voice/virtual assistants will have to use the family of AI technologies to learn – what words the consumer uses, what bank accounts, where they make hotel or restaurant reservations, their preferences and more – to streamline tasks. AI will even do fun things like surface all of a consumer’s food photos.
  • Availability of services. The near-term end game here is to own consumer’s moments. What this means is that the consumer goes to Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google or Samsung first regardless of what he or she wants. These brands want to be the portal into consumers’ ecosystem of brands or services. Therefore, the utility of a consumer’s smartphone or virtual assistant depends a lot on the services available through it. Apple’s iPhone or Google’s Pixel wouldn’t be nearly as valuable to consumers if they couldn’t download apps among the millions available. The same will apply with voice or virtual assistants. Consumers won’t want closed ecosystems. Consumers want to choose where to bank, order pizza or get a ride.
  • Seamless delivery of services throughout a consumers’ ecosystem. As consumers choose payment providers, music services, TV applications and more, they will want these services to work everywhere – not just on a smartphone or wireless speaker. Value to consumers will depend on the size of the network (i.e., where can I use Apple Pay) or the seamless delivery of services like music, Internet, and more.