SAN FRANCISCO — Google launched an aggressive challenge to Apple and Samsung on Tuesday, introducing its own new line of smartphones called Pixel, which are designed to showcase a digital helper the company calls "Google Assistant."
The new phones represent a big new push by Google to sell its own consumer devices, instead of largely just supplying software for other manufacturers. At a starting price of $649, the new phones are aimed at the same markets as Apple's iPhone and Samsung's Galaxy flagship phones.
Google executives touted features such as a powerful camera and long-lasting battery during a product event Tuesday, where they said the phones will be sold in two screen sizes — 5 inches and 5.5 inches — and three colors: black, silver and blue.
But they're clearly hoping that the new Pixel phones will be distinguished by their use of Google's software. A central element of all the new devices is the Google Assistant, a digital helper that uses artificial intelligence to deliver what CEO Sundar Pichai described as "a personal Google for each and every user."
Google makes most of its money from online software and digital ads. But it's putting more emphasis on hardware as it competes for consumers' attention.
Hardware is hard
New devices could help Google keep its services front and center in the battle for consumers' attention, said analyst Julie Ask at Forrester Research. Unlike a new mobile app or other software, she noted, it can be an expensive gamble to build and ship new hardware products. "But if you're Google, you can't afford to stop placing bets."
Google has sold smartphones and tablets under the Nexus brand, which it launched in 2010 as a way to show off the best features of its Android software. But it put relatively little effort into promoting those devices, which have mostly ended up in the hands of Google purists.
Android already powers the majority of smartphones sold around the world. But Samsung, the biggest maker of Android phones, has increasingly been adding more of its own software — even its own Samsung Pay mobile wallet — on the phones it sells. Another big rival, Apple, has built its own services, such as online maps and its own Siri personal assistant, to replace Google's apps on the iPhone.
Home, but not alone
Google is also likely to begin selling a voice-activated "smart speaker" called Home, apparently modeled on Amazon's Echo . Analysts are expecting Google will announce more details, including price and availability, at Tuesday's event.
The "Home" device will feature Google's digital "Assistant" service, a voice-activated personal butler that can search the internet, play music or perform other useful tasks. "Assistant" is the company's answer to similar concierge services from rivals, including Siri, Amazon's Alexa and Microsoft's Cortana.
Leading tech companies are all competing to assist consumers in their online activities, from search and navigation to shopping. That gives the companies a better chance of selling advertising or other services.
Home-based systems like the Echo are taking on more importance as voice technology has improved, said Forrester's Ask. "You can't assume somebody is going to go sit down at a computer or pick up a phone and type in a question anymore," she said.
Google may also provide a closer look Tuesday at some other products, including a new virtual-reality headset that it teased in May. Like the other devices, Google's virtual reality system could be a platform for a wide range of games and applications that are built on Google's software.