Google is looking to take charge of Android with a strong foot and two Pixel phones

Google’s setting the stage for a major hardware announcement in October, but you don’t have to wait til then to see some serious signs of change. It’s something that, by all counts, should feel familiar: the annual ritual of Google unveiling its latest flagship Android phones running the latest version of stock Android.

But this year, something feels decidedly different. Look closely, and it’s obvious: This isn’t the same Google we’ve come to know over these past several years. Google has always been a reluctant hardware maker, even though its Android operating system powers more than 80 percent of smartphones around the globe. But next month it plans to launch two new “Made by Google” smartphones running a unique version of Android with new features unavailable on any other phone. How the other OEMs respond to that, if they do, will be interesting.

During a big night in US primetime TV, an enigmatic ad showed up — a spot in which a context-free box slowly transformed from a search bar into the shape of a phone, with “Oct. 4” and the Google logo beside it.

And that was it: no product name, no specific info, nothing else beyond the mysterious morphing box and the October 4th date.

It may have not made sense to the regular people but if you’re reading this, and you saw the ad, you must have raised an eyebrow.October 4 has long been rumored as the date Google would take the wraps off its new hardware goodies, including its 2016 flagship phones. Around the same time the ad aired, Google sent out invites to members of the media for an event on the 4th and simultaneously launched a cryptic teaser website at madeby.google.com. The same info is even now appearing on prominent billboards in New York City.

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Image credit : leggo_tech

It’s easy to wonder, what’s wrong in Google actively promoting it’s product  but hang on: The medium Google has chosen for this campaign speaks louder than any surface-level message. Think about it: Google’s flagship phones are traditionally aimed more at Android enthusiasts than the general public — at people enough in the know to understand the differences between a Google Android device and a device that’s sold and supported by a third-party manufacturer. At people who care about things like an optimal user experience and reliable ongoing software upgrades. At people who are comfortable buying their phones unlocked from a website as opposed to getting more broadly known devices by more traditional means.

You don’t spend beaucoup bucks on primetime TV ads to reach that audience — especially at this phase in the process, when all you’re doing is teasing an upcoming product announcement. Google product announcements tend to be pretty low-key. They’re typically a far cry from the theatrical productions put on by the likes of Apple or Samsung — and they sure as hell aren’t advertised this prominently to the general masses.

On a philosophical level, at least, that’s a noteworthy change from what we’ve come to know from the company’s flagship program. Though they were undeniably Google products through and through, Nexus devices were always created in collaboration with a rotating cast of manufacturers, who (on some level) shared the branding for the hardware production. By taking full credit for the devices and portraying them as “made by Google” — period — Google is framing the products in a very different light.

And if this initial ad push is any indication, the company won’t be shy about marketing that heavily to the general public.

Google’s hope is that by producing unique phones — and selling lots of them — it can take back control of Android, which is used freely by smartphone manufacturers from Samsung to Huawei which barely mention Android and are increasingly adding their own apps and services on top to stand out, and diluting Google’s vision of Android in the process.

Maybe ditching the Nexus brand, which has indicated a million different things over the years and has never really had a clear or consistent meaning, is an early step in Osterloh’s plan for unification. Sure, Pixel’s been a relatively niche brand so far, but it’s had a crystal-clear focus from the start: Its name indicates a high-end product created and supported by Google, with no third-party meddling and only the company’s own vision for how its software should work.

With reports suggesting Huawei is secretly preparing its own operating system as a possible replacement for Android, and Samsung openly developing its Tizen operating system, Google knows it needs to change the way Android works, and for now it appears that making its own smartphones with unique software features is how it want to do this.

Google typically launches its new smartphones with the latest update to Android, which this year is called Nougat and which was released with little fanfare on older devices last month. This year however reports suggest the company is looking to add new features to the software which will be exclusive to its Pixel smartphones. I wouldn’t be surprised, and would actually welcome it, if Google stuffs it’s newly launched Allo and Duo as the default communication apps on Pixel devices. Sure Allo is sort of a mixed bag with it’s SMS support but a full SMS support could only be an update away.

Rumors also point to this year’s new Pixel phones as being manufactured by HTC, so the new arrangement may be quite similar to the old in actuality and different primarily in presentation.

These reports are given added weight by Google CEO Sundar Pichai’s comments earlier this year, saying the company would be “more opinionated about the design of the phones,” and would “add more features on top of Android on Nexus phones.”

While the latest version of Android is as good as, if not better than, Apple’s iOS 10, the problem is that very few of the Android smartphones in use today will ever get to take advantage of its new features.

By taking control of a big part of the market, if it can, Google will be able to change the fragmentation scenario to an extent. The meaningful pivot appears to be with what Google wants these devices to represent — and how and to whom it intends to market them. Those are considerations that have never felt like major focuses for Google in the past. But the times, they are a-changin’. And while Google likely isn’t looking to turn a major profit directly from selling phones like these, the company clearly has a reason for rethinking its approach and trying to reposition how its product line is perceived.

But the big question is, how will the other OEMs respond? Will they continue to support Android when Google itself is directly competing with their best products? I think, however way they respond, or don’t, it might result a big shift in Smartphone market shares if Google is able to pull of the Pixels even to an extent. Google is probably hoping it will force these OEMs into focussing on the hardware, because running android, they can not be the first to bring forth software updates, nor will their software be as optimized as Google’s.

Which is how Google wanted things to happen the first time around, that the manufacturers would leave the software to Google, and compete in the hardware. And we know how that turned out. In a previous post, I had mentioned how Microsoft’s approach may have been one of the reasons for the failure of the Windows mobile platform, and I wondered if things would’ve been different had they followed the Google Nexus way. But as it turns out, Google may be looking to follow the Microsoft way for once instead.

What do you think of Google’s move? Do you support it? Would you like to see a Samsung running almost stock android with touchwiz features? Or would you rather Samsung and Huawei go their own OS routes?

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6 thoughts on “Google is looking to take charge of Android with a strong foot and two Pixel phones

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