With the Pixel Tablet, Google has come full circle on smart displays

With the upcoming release of the Pixel tablet, Google is once again redesigning the Google Assistant smart display ecosystem that started on Android and has now come full circle back to Android.

History of Google Assistant smart displays

The smart display space started in earnest in 2017 with the Amazon Echo Show, which took the Alexa smart speaker platform and added a touchscreen display. Google followed a year later, working with partners like JBL and Lenovo to release smart displays with the Google Assistant.

These third-party options were built on top of “Android Things,” a variant of Android originally intended for low-power Internet-of-Things devices. Google refocused development of Android Things in 2019 to optimize for smart speakers and displays, but ultimately the project was scrapped less than two years later.

Meanwhile, Google released its own take on the smart display form factor, the 2018 Nest Hub (originally dubbed the “Google Home Hub”). Compared to Android-powered smart displays, the Nest Hub fell behind in specs with its low-resolution display, lack of a camera, and less-than-impressive audio, but Google made up for it with the gadget’s low cost.

At $149 (later $129, then $89), the Nest Hub was a more budget-friendly option and otherwise offered the same features as Lenovo and JBL smart displays. Under the hood, rather than running on Android Things, the Nest Hub has adopted the same “Cast OS” software used by Google’s smart speakers and the original generations of Chromecast.

In 2021, Google shook things up a bit by letting Nest Hub smart displays serve as the debut of its Fuchsia Perfect. Although the Fuchsia updates to the Nest Hub and Nest Hub Max represented many years of work to build an operating system from the ground up, they brought little to no new functionality because they were designed to be an unnoticed change.

When rumors first circulated about what we know today as the Pixel Tablet, the impression was given that it would be a new generation of Nest Hub, simply with a detachable screen. This led some to speculate that the Fuchsia-powered smart display experience could get an upgrade to be more useful as an all-purpose tablet.

Instead, Google’s next big foray into the smart display market is actually a Pixel-branded tablet, and with the Pixel name comes the full Android system. So what started out on Android (Things) has gone through several major redesigns only to end up back on Android.

Is the Pixel tablet really a Nest Hub?

Despite switching platforms several times, the core Google Assistant smart display experience has remained the same, albeit with steady improvements over the years. This is possible because Google built this smart display experience with the Flutter app kit, allowing the same code to run on multiple platforms.

Given that Flutter can just as effectively build apps for Android, it should be easy enough for Google to bring the exact same Nest Hub experience to the Pixel tablet as an app of sorts. Meanwhile, for almost a year, Google has had a redesign of the Nest Hub software that appears to be ready to launch.

However, we didn’t see much of the Pixel tablet’s smart display capabilities in action. Early previews focused on using it as a regular Android tablet, and the few images we’ve seen don’t look like the same Nest Hub experience we’ve grown accustomed to. The only preview of the smart home-related UI just shows a larger version of what’s on offer on Pixel phones today.

One possibility is that the Pixel tablet will drop the Nest Hub experience entirely. Nest Hub’s software had to be able to do everything in isolation, which seems in direct contrast to how the Pixel tablet works.

For example, if you ask the Google Assistant in a Nest Hub to set a timer, it will do so on its own and display a specific screen dedicated to your active timers. Meanwhile, on the Pixel tablet, asking for a timer will likely invoke the separate Google Clock app.

Similarly, as shown in Google’s teaser images, the Pixel tablet can manage smart home devices via the Google Home app and Android’s “Home Controls” feature, rather than a dedicated smart display page to need.

Instead of integrating an all-encompassing smart display experience, the Google Assistant just needs to be smart enough to manage these tasks across different Android apps. Coincidentally, Google has been gearing up for just that since the “next-gen assistant” first launched on the Pixel 4.

A wizard that holds everything together

At Google I/O 2019, the company debuted the next-generation Assistant and demonstrated how it can perform actions within (and across) any number of apps.

The demo was intended to encourage developers to create app actions, one of the underlying mechanics behind the next-gen assistant. App Actions provide direct connections between the Google Assistant and your current Android apps. That means your Pixel tablet can be just as smart and powerful as the library apps you have installed.

In comparison, Google Assistant speakers and smart displays used to be able to access an extensive library of additional applets and functions via “Conversational Actions”. For example, if you find a new recipe and want help cooking it, you can say, “Hey Google, talk to Tasty.”

However, Google announced the upcoming shutdown of Conversational Actions last year and specifically encouraged developers to focus on App Actions instead.

With that in mind, I think Google is taking a clean approach with the Pixel Tablet, ditching the legacy of the Nest Hub and relying on Google Assistant and the vast Android app ecosystem to bring the intelligence.

Instead of having to memorize a phrase like “Talk to Tasty,” you can directly ask the Google Assistant to search for a specific recipe in your app of choice. Assistant is already smart enough to know which service you prefer for music, which services have which movies and shows, and more. These can now run across the full Android apps instead of a stripped down Cast experience.

More importantly, all of this is possible without changing your “Hey Google” habits.

While it may feel like the journey from Google to smart displays has ended up right where it started, from Android to Android, we’re actually breaking new ground. Rather than simply copying what the Nest Hub did, the Pixel Tablet could very well launch as the best use of the next-gen Google Assistant. After all, what better place for a hands-free voice assistant than on a device you might not always have in your hands?

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