The Pixel Tablet’s Ambient Mode forerunner & iPad dock threat

When I speak to Google and learn more about the Pixel tablet, my biggest takeaway is that the dual role as an assistant smart display will be the path to success. It all comes down to execution, which of course is harder said than done given that two years ago Google basically tried Assistant Ambient Mode. Meanwhile, Apple is rumored to be right behind the Pixel Tablet and is following the same strategy for the iPad.

Deja vu/Precursor

In mid-2019 we started working on an assistant “Ambient Mode” in the Google app. It was officially announced in September to give you a “visual overview” by replacing the lock screen for charging Android phones and tablets.

As with the Pixel tablet, Ambient Mode featured a Google Photos slideshow with the time centered at the top and a way to launch Assistant at the bottom. The Home main view notes the time in the upper left corner with an assistant greeting and your next appointment.

The weather was displayed in the top right with a column of calendar notifications and reminders. There was also an option to continue the music with full-screen controls. The final component of Ambient Mode was a series of smart home actions like viewing camera feeds, turning lights on and off, and managing the thermostat.

It launched on two Lenovo tablets that came with docks and Nokia phones. In many ways, this experience was more feature-rich than a Nest Hub, as unlocking it literally gives you a full tablet of Android apps.

That’s the forthcoming Pixel tablet pitch, although Google is very committed to offering a great tablet experience for media consumption and productivity through large-screen-optimized workspace apps. In fact, our conversation with Google revealed that the product team sees this as the number one reason for the Pixel tablet’s existence, followed by the smart display aspect and the charging speaker dock.

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Personally, I think Google will have more success if it puts the smart display component of the Pixel tablet first, or at least on an equal footing in marketing the device. I believe doubling as a Nest Hub is what will bring Android tablets into homes in the first place, and then people could discover all the work that Google is putting into optimizing the mobile OS for big screens and optimizing first-party installed apps.

In fact, I think that if Google is serious about competing with Apple, the Smart Display-on-Android experience should be made available to all partners (i.e. Samsung).

The docking iPad menace

Speaking of iPads, Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman reported Saturday that Apple “intends to eventually bring its tablet deeper into the home with plans to turn the device into a smart hub and speaker.”

I reported last year that Apple is investigating a standalone device that combines an iPad with a speaker hub. The idea is to offer something that users can place on a kitchen counter, in the living room, or on their bedside table. But Apple has also been working on an iPad docking accessory that it could sell separately and would achieve a lot of that.

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It remains to be seen if this docking accessory is only for new iPads or has some backwards compatibility. If it’s the latter, the Pixel Tablet would be given a big boost if Apple could simply update iPadOS and sell an accessory that breathes new life into iPads that people already have but aren’t fully using.

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Android OEMs have the natural affordability advantage. However, if this rumored Apple dock is even cheaper than what Google and partners are offering brand new, the best chances of success for modern Android tablets would be severely diminished.

Of course, that path to success for a form factor that Google says it’s committed to depends on execution. In theory, Google could have taken over the smart display aspect of the Pixel tablet two years ago and brought Samsung on board. Of course, Assistant Ambient Mode was far from a success. Lenovo announced a new tablet with Ambient Mode in January 2020, while the experience expanded to OnePlus a month later.

We haven’t heard anything about Ambient Mode, which goes hand-in-hand with Assistant’s getting back to basics – enhancing the basic voice experience, rather than branding various experiences as Assistant-driven – since early 2020 – last year. There’s the Assistant Snapshot setting, and lastly, the Driving Mode dashboard/home screen.

“Once more to the breach”

I think what Google has in store for them today is that the Android tablet experience is in a better place thanks to Android 12L and 13 and a push to encourage third-party app tweaks.

Meanwhile, Android tablets might just be the next evolution of smart displays. The Nest Hub has seen new features like Look and Talk and Quick Phrases in recent months, while we’ve seen signs of a major UI redesign. However, none of these features are unique to dedicated Cast or Fuchsia powered smart displays compared to Android tablets.

Finally, and while this isn’t the ideal answer, the competition from Apple and the iPad could push Google to innovate and implement the Pixel tablet in a meaningful way. Debuting that experience on a Pixel-branded product and having that failure would be a bigger black eye than Ambient Mode ever was. These two factors alone are powerful driving forces.

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