SAN FRANCISCO — When Google CEO Sundar Pichai announced a host of new hardware products earlier this month the star of the show was its Pixel smartphone, intended to be fierce competition for the iPhone.
What most people in attendance that morning didn't know is that a Mexican industrial designer led the team that created the Pixel's sleek body, which Google senior vice president Rick Osterloh made sure to point out has "no unsightly camera bump" in an obvious reference to the new iPhone 7.
Creative lead Alberto Villarreal works as part of a new hardware group led by Osterloh. The new division signals a big bet on consumer products in the physical world for a company that's made its name on algorithms and cloud-based software.
"We are at a unique moment," Villarreal says of his role in the larger strategic context. Google promoted its product launch under the social media hashtag #MadeByGoogle and called the Pixel the first phone it has made "inside and out."
Villarreal previously had his own studio in Mexico, but took the job at Google after an invitation from a former colleague at a San Francisco design firm.
"To be an industrial designer at a company that's pouring so many resources into hardware is unique," he added during an interview in Spanish. "Especially when you have the added value that comes from the product's soul."
Villarreal is referring to the fact that the Pixel is the first phone that incorporates Google Assistant, the company's artificial intelligence-powered bet on the future of search: a constant presence across devices that jumps into chats and queries to provide answers and accomplish tasks related to what users are discussing. This is an area where a few tech giants – including Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft – find themselves converging and competing.
The Assistant "follows" users as they engage with various Google apps and devices. Between Assistant and the recently-launched Google Home talking device, the company aims to make itself even more of a presence in people’s daily lives. And Google is banking on almost two decades of accumulating data on users’ information needs and custom preferences to provide a personalized service edge over its rivals.
“There are few companies, I doubt there’s more than two or three, that can do this," Villarreal says. "It is a privilege.”
The Pixel phone sports a brushed aluminum body with a Gorilla glass back and it comes in three colors: Quite Black, Very Silver and Really Blue. Google claims it created the latter.
In keeping with the tone of the launch's thinly veiled swipes at Apple, Villarreal points to the bright blue option as a way for Pixel users to have their phone stand out among the crowd.
"We were a little tired of the rose gold and other very last-year tones that you can see in the industry," he says. "We wanted to do something bold that no one else was doing and show Google's playful, young personality."
Apple calls the pink hue it introduced on its iPhones last year "rose gold."
Making the camera fit in the phone's body without a "bump" was a big challenge, Villarreal says: "It's hard to design a product with such a big component inside, while at the same time trying to make it slim and comfortable to hold." He is very pleased with the result, since the flat back of the phone prevents it from rocking when left on a desk (unlike you-know-who's phone).
His overall goal, he says, was to make a comfortable and "approachable" phone, with no sharp angles on its body.
This is a key project for Google. The company has launched smartphones before, like the Nexus, but had never actually branded them with its own logo. Companies like LG and Huawei manufactured the Nexus, which has had mixed reviews.
Villarreal – who moved to California's Bay Area from Mexico City when he joined Google in 2013 – was in charge of that project as well, but he says the Pixel was extra special.
"It carries Google's logo," he says. And also because of the importance of a phone (in people's lives,) it is the most important product today. You have it with you all day."
From now on, Villarreal and his fellow hardware designers will have plenty of products to work on, including the Chromecast wireless connector for TVs, the Home assistant, the new Google Wifi router system, and others.
Villarreal thinks Google has one clear advantage: artificial intelligence and machine learning expertise, accrued over many years of providing search and other web-based services.
That's the "soul" he believes will make Google's hardware product the winners against some impressive opposition.
"It allows for the products to offer this unique proposition," he says. "It's not only hardware of the highest quality, but also this magic that comes with Google's products."