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Google to Apple: It's your move now on VR, smart speaker

Google's Daydream View headset and Home speaker are two products that Apple doesn't have an answer for.

Google Home, the $129 networked speakers that deliver Google Assistant services

James Martin/CNET

Google just ratcheted up the pressure on Apple.

For starters on Tuesday, it debuted products Apple lacks -- the Daydream virtual-reality headset, the Google Home digital assistant-powered speaker, the Chromecast Ultra streamer that can pipe 4K video to your TV.

On top of that is a broader competitive threat. Google designed its new devices on its own, reflecting an evolution into a company that makes hardware, not just one that writes software and offers online services.

Sound familiar? That's the winning strategy Apple employed during the last decade's explosively fast development of the phone and tablet market to vault ahead of rivals like Dell, Microsoft and Samsung. Google could one-up Apple when it comes to integration of hardware, software and services.

It's no coincidence that Google's new Pixel is the only phone to get the new Google Assistant and to tap into unlimited cloud storage for any photos and videos that don't fit on the phone. The Google Home smart speaker adds another way to use Google Assistant -- and to control Chromecast devices playing YouTube video on your TV and Google Play Music on your stereo.

Google's Pixel phones won't push aside Apple iPhones and Samsung Galaxys any time soon. But with new types of gadgets hitting the market, Google's ambition makes it much more likely you'll see devices sporting the company's "G" logo infiltrate your home.

"Google...demonstrated that it's finally serious about hardware," said Jackdaw Research analyst Jan Dawson.

All about execution

To really put the competitive pressure on Apple, Google has to deliver the goods, not just announce them. It's shown some ability here, having sold 30 million Chromecasts so far by Strategy Analytics' estimate. But other products haven't fared so well, like the short-lived Nexus Q audio streaming device. Its acquisition of the Motorola phone business didn't last much longer. And Google's earlier Nexus phones remained niche products despite six years of sustained effort.

Google's products aren't first to market either -- Amazon's Echo speaker and Alexa voice-powered digital assistant are already a hit with consumers. But unless Apple's smart speaker project and virtual reality efforts bear fruit soon, Google will beat Apple to market. Google Home and Daydream View are both due to arrive in November.

The Google Pixel​ XL, a 5.5-inch Android phone, has a top-shelf camera and built-in Google Assistant abilities.

The Google Pixel XL, a 5.5-inch Android phone, has a top-shelf camera and built-in Google Assistant abilities.

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Google doesn't pose any near-term threat to Apple, according to Creative Strategies analyst Ben Bajarin. As with Microsoft's Surface tablet PC line, it will take Google years of sustained effort to develop a reputation for good products and customer trust, he said, and developing the necessary deep relationships with retailers and carriers to push Pixel phones is "super hard."

But while people are settled in their phone-buying habits, it's different with Google Home, which taps into a nascent market that's just starting to get attention thanks to the Echo. "Google has an opportunity to break new ground, and Apple is not there," Bajarin said.

Apple declined to comment for this story.

First isn't always best

The immensely profitable iPhone maker has been judicious about entering new markets, and being first in a new category isn't necessarily as important as having a good product.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai stands before queries you can ask Google Assistant.

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Apple wasn't the first to sell digital music players, but the iPod eventually dominated. The iPhone wasn't the first smartphone, but it was the one that rewrote the rules of mobile computing. Google attracted plenty of attention with its Google Glass eyewear, but Apple sat on the sidelines as that product faltered.

As online services pervade our lives, Apple can't afford to be complacent. The company has significant services such as FaceTime messaging, iCloud storage, Siri search and Maps. But with more than a billion people each using Gmail and YouTube, and with Google still dominating search, there's no question here who has more clout. That's a big advantage as digital assistants spread to phones, speakers, PCs, TVs, cars and other devices.

"It's clear to me we are evolving from a mobile-first world to an AI-first world," Google Chief Executive Sundar Pichai said at the event. Siri can answer some questions and get iPhones to call mom, but Google Assistant is wired up to the most powerful computer brains on the planet when it comes to fetching the information you want.

"This event may have been pitched as a hardware launch but it in reality it is a statement of intent from Google in artificial intelligence," said CCS Insight analyst Martin Garner. "Hardware is simply the means to deepen Google's reach into the fabric of daily life."

First published October 6 at 5:00 a.m. PT.
Update at 7:17 a.m. PT: Added Apple's response.