By the time Google announced its pair of Pixel smartphones on Tuesday, the devices had already been leaked all to pieces. Shape, size, specs; even color variants were laid bare by clumsy carriers. In fact, just about the only thing left unknown about the Pixels is what they’ll do to the already splintered Android ecosystem.
Google had previously released smartphones, made by a revolving set of hardware partners, under its Nexus line. But Nexus devices, despite consistent excellence, never amounted to more than a sideshow. Pixel wants to be the main event. And that should make other Android manufacturers very, very nervous.
Android has a problem worth solving. It’s a terrific operating system. The latest release, Android Nougat, is both mature and refined, full of thoughtful and responsive touches that rival anything iOS can offer. If only anyone could use it.
Two weeks after it started rolling out, Nougat had reached fewer than 0.1 percent of Android devices. In fact, the most popular Android version today remains Android KitKat. It came out in the fall of 2013.
Android fragmentation is not a new lament, but it’s an increasingly irksome one. Updates need to route through a complex obstacle course of carriers and manufacturers, if they ever make it at all. Recent hardware releases get left behind; security issues go unpatched. User experience suffers. It’s frustrating, for users and Google alike.
Things aren’t much prettier on the hardware side.
“Android has always been a fickle master–it’s been an enabler of a huge chunk of the smartphone market, but with very few exceptions it hasn’t been a driver of significant margins, and the lack of differentiation between Android vendors has created something of a race to the bottom in recent years,” says Jan Dawson, chief analyst at Jackdaw Research.
It’s a bifurcated market. Samsung dominates the top end, while a raft of low-cost imports scrap it out in the affordable territories. Those who have attempted to occupy the middle, like HTC, have gotten squeezed. An open ecosystem that should promise choice has resulted in surprisingly little of it.
“The fragmented Android ecosystem is very competitive with very low margins,” says Anindya Ghose, director of the Center for Business Analytics at NYU Stern. “Even Samsung makes only 17 percent margins.”
Nexus devices didn’t offer Google much remedy. The phones were high-quality and competitively priced, but sold primarily through Google’s own limited channels.(The exception to this was the giant, Motorola-made Nexus 6, an expensive phone with carrier partners, released just after Google’s brief Motorola ownership. It could be seen as a sort of Pixel trial run.)
More to the point, Nexus phones were built through partnerships with bona fide phone-makers; they were a chance for manufacturers to show off their chops as much as for Google to show off Android. In practice, that meant many Nexus devices felt like repeats of existing third-party hardware–and carried their limitations as well. With Pixel, that changes.
Unlike the Nexus devices, the Pixel is purely Google’s vision. The company outsourced manufacturing to HTC, but everything about Pixel is made to Google’s exact specifications. Even the tagline, Made by Google, not so subtly reminds that all other Android devices are not. This is as pure a vision of what Google wants in a smartphone as has ever existed.
It also couldn’t come at a more critical time. The other tentpoles of Google’s Tuesday announcement were Google Assistant, an AI-powered helper that hopes to anticipate your every need, and Daydream, a sleek stab at creating virtual reality for the masses. These products, and others like them, aren’t just Google’s future. They’re the future of personal computing. Those stakes are too high to leave to someone else’s design team.
“Building hardware and software together lets us take full advantage of capabilities like the Google Assistant,” said Rick Osterloh, Google’s SVP of hardware. “It lets us harness years of expertise we’ve built up in machine learning and AI to deliver the simple, smart, and fast experiences that our users expect from us.”
The inspiration here is clear enough that you could just as easily call it a blueprint. Apple’s unwavering command over both hardware and software let the iPhone become one of the most successful consumer products in history. The Pixel doesn’t just look like the iPhone; it aspires to its clone its success as well.
It’s the right move. A Pixel smartphone won’t just have the latest Android version and the best camera. It’s going to be the spool from which Google’s new voice-controlled ecosystem will be threaded. It’s meant to be the window through which a generation views virtual worlds.
“It is well known that Android can be much better optimized than what it is today,” says Ghose. “By controlling the hardware, Google can dramatically improve the reliability and consistency of the user experience on Android phones.”
All of which is to say that Pixel is serious. And it could be a serious problem for anyone else in the Android business.
Points of Sale
While Pixel smartphones will create a shining example of what an Android device can be, they’ll also make life that much harder on anyone else who makes them.
“All else equal, an HTC or a Huawei would want to be a true partner rather than just a contractor,” says Ghose. “But Google does not want any other manufacturer’s brand to shine on Pixel other than its own.”
Being paid as a contractor is better than not making any money at all–a situation with which HTC is painfully familiar. But even then, there are only so many Pixel contracts to go around. And everyone else making Android devices faces the prospect of being even further behind.
Aside from the obvious under-the-hood benefits of Google controlling both hardware and software, Pixel phones launch as the only smartphones with Google Assistant built in. That’s a genuine point of differentiation, especially as Google pushes its broader ecosystem with Google Home and Chromecast. Pixel phones will be more efficient, more feature-filled, and more broadly integrated than any other Android competitor, full stop. And they’ll continue to be for as long as Google makes them.
The possible upside to all of this is that it will push manufacturers like Samsung and LG and Motorola to innovate and iterate even more aggressively. We’ve seen some of that in the laptop space, after Microsoft similarly shook an industry by bringing the Surface Book in-house. In fact, we’ve already started to see it, whether it’s modular designs from LG and Motorola or continued hardware excellence–explosions aside–from Samsung.
Google, too, says it will stand by its Android partners. And it also sees Pixel as an innovation engine.
“We want to continue to see the entire Android ecosystem thrive,” says Google spokesperson Iska Saric. “With these new phones, we aim to provide the best Google phone experience, which we hope will also contribute to future innovation and development of the ecosystem.”
Hardware manufacturers have other options, too. They could embrace an emerging operating system, though Samsung’s early adventures with Tizen don’t offer much encouragement there. Or they could turn to other product categories for relief, as HTC has virtual reality.
Whatever the future, an already brutal Android ecosystem just got even more so. The Pixel looks great, unless you happen to share its software DNA. Then it looks like a long, slow fade.
“Hardware isn’t a new area for Google, but now we’re taking steps to showcase the very best of Google across a family of devices designed and built for us,” said Osterloh. “This is a natural step, and we’re in it for the long run.”
This story has been updated to include comment from Google.