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Google’s Android chief says AI is a new weapon against Apple’s iPhone

I recently saw him on the Netflix TV show Drive to Survive, going after Zak Brown, the head of the McLaren Formula 1 racing team. Google is a major sponsor and Samat wanted to see improvements.

And last month, Samat moved forward via a reorganization at the top of Google. He is now the president of Android Ecosystems, which means he runs Android, the world’s most popular smartphone platform. This work also includes Android TV, Android Auto and new augmented and mixed reality technology.

At Google IO, I had the chance to interview Samat. I started by asking him how AI is changing the smartphone market, competition with Apple and the distribution of Google’s technology.

“AI is booming. It’s a huge opportunity for the Android ecosystem,” he said. “We’re going to move very quickly so we don’t miss this opportunity. This is a once-in-a-generation moment to reinvent what phones can do. We’re going to seize this moment.”

With Google’s new Gemini AI models, “we can do things that have never been possible on smartphones,” he added.

The 800-pound smartphone gorilla, Apple — that’s not a word Samat said in the interview. At one point, he talked about “the other operating system,” referring to Apple’s iOS mobile platform, which leads in the United States but remains far behind Android globally.

More than an app

On this “other operating system,” Google’s Gemini is just an app. On Android, it’s much more, according to Samat.

He showed me an example by pressing and holding the power button on his Pixel 8 phone. This prompted Gemini to appear on top of the YouTube app he was in.

There was a video playing and he asked Gemini about the clip. Gemini analyzed the footage and responded from the relevant part of the video. He then pulled out a Samsung S24 and did the same thing, but touching and dragging it from the bottom right corner of the screen to summon Gemini.

The “System User Interface” level

This is possible because Google has integrated Gemini AI models and assistive technology at the “System UI” level on Android devices. This is below the application level, where the important technical stuff happens.

“You can’t do things like that if you’re just an app on a device,” Samat said. “We can do this on Android, so Gemini can enter the situation with context, above or alongside what’s happening.”

Without being locked into an app, Gemini is free to explore more of the device and understand the context of what you’re doing at any time.

Samat pointed out that this only happens if users invoke the AI ​​with intentional actions such as pressing a button on the Pixel 8 or swiping on the S24.

On-device AI

He cited another example: on-device AI with the smaller Gemini Nano model. It works on the Pixel 8 and S24, with more Android devices coming soon.

This allows Gemini to do useful things without sending user data to cloud data centers.

One use case for this approach: If you use an encrypted messaging service on your phone, you can’t send that data to a data center for AI models to process. So an AI assistant or agent can’t help you write replies or do other cool things when you’re texting.

With Nano, Google has on-device AI that can process these encrypted messages and provide help in writing responses and taking other actions. None of this data will leave the device, Samat said.

Gemini on iPhone?

I then asked Samat a big business strategy question: Does Google want its best Gemini models distributed more prominently on Apple devices?

Google already pays Apple billions of dollars a year to make search the default feature on Safari. Will it make a similar deal to distribute Gemini on iPhones, for example?

Samat declined to comment. More generally, he said Google’s overall goal is to serve all users around the world.

However, he emphasized that this doesn’t mean the company can’t create unique experiences on Android devices, including many new AI experiences.

Circle to search

He cited Circle to search For example. This lets you search anything you see on your phone screen by simply circling, scribbling, or highlighting it. For example, if you’re watching a video and find a hat or sunglasses you want to buy, simply launch the Circle to Search feature and circle the product.

It works through a combination of Google Search, Gemini AI technology and Android, which is not possible on any other platform, Samat said.

These experiences require end-to-end optimization, which Google is doing with its Pixel devices and with Samsung, and soon other Android vendors.

“AI is a fundamental differentiator for Android. Samsung is a critical part of it, as is Pixel,” he said.

“Are these just our Pixel devices? No!” he added. Samsung and other Android device makers play a crucial role in this next wave of AI-powered devices, he explained.


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