It’s difficult to tell when you’re in the midst of a landmark moment in history. Few guessed that in 2008 when Google debuted the G1, the first phone to run Android, the mobile software would transform the wireless world. It didn’t help that when Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin went up on stage, they were wearing roller blades.
For years Google has been involved in a proxy war with the iPhone maker. It makes a rival operating system, Android, it buys up patents and it goes to court to protect them. Unlike Apple though, which is essentially a hardware company that makes software to sell its hardware, Google has always been a software & services company until now.Google has long been happy to develop and license Android software to third-party smartphone makers like Samsung, and sell its software and services through them rather than create its own devices in-house. Not to say Google did not do hardware at all, it did a few, like the chromecast.
Although unlike OEMs such as Samsung and LG, Google has a track record of being fairly low-key in the weeks leading up to special hardware events, especially when it comes to the most recent members of the Nexus family. So when the search giant started teasing this year’s October 4th event with playful, minimalist pieces, industry enthusiasts were a bit surprised. It started out as coy advertising, with mysterious statues, and took the shape of full-blown marketing with huge bill board posters and TV ads.
If the Google Pixel’s design and pricing didn’t already give it away, Rick Osterloh from Google said that he knew people will compare the Google phone with the iPhone, and “they can, should and will.” It’s obvious that Google is pitching the Pixel up against the iPhone. It is not a gorgeous looking design, but let’s admit that it still does manage to look like an iPhone.
Google is becoming more like Apple now, the only difference being that Google will be using the hardware to sell its software instead. Confused? Apple is fundamentally dependent on the iPhone, as sales of the device represent a majority of their entire revenue. iPhone sales constituted a whopping 57 percent of Apple revenue in the second quarter of this year, for instance. Whereas Google earns most of its revenue from ads, software and services. So if Google sells in-house built devices, granted it now has full control of the stock, distribution and profits, it is not expecting a direct profit from the hardware, what it wants is iPhone users to switch to Google’s software.
They will not be financially dependent on the Pixel, and the company has proven that they have no problem working on long, large-scale projects at a loss like Project loon and Project Ara. However, Google’s pitch against Apple is not exclusive. With Pixel, Google has made rivals with partners like Samsung, the largest smartphone maker and the biggest Android name in the premium market.
Up until now, Samsung has been Apple’s biggest competitor. As tech enthusiasts, Android lovers, we know Samsung phones aren’t the only choice we have. At times, there’s a HTC 10, sometimes there’s an LG V20 or a Moto Z that easily work better for us. But the general consumer doesn’t know about them. It’s either an iPhone, a Galaxy, or some other Android phone. Brands like Sony and LG may be household names, but when it comes to smartphones, they fall into the mosh pit of “Android” phones, a third tier category usually not considered as good as an iPhone or a Galaxy. Samsung’s Galaxy smartphones are a brand in themselves.
But Samsung has been fighting this battle against Apple with a hand tied behind its back. Samsung phones run a third-party software, that it has no control over. And as such, it skins it up to look like Samsung software, which degrades the user experience resulting often in sluggish performance and delayed updates.
By creating a full-fledged “Google Phone,” the Internet company is asserting their identity in the market in a profound way. If the Pixel is successful in the US at least, it will push “Galaxy” into the third space within the “Android” branded world. Consumers in general would perceive the market as “iPhones” vs. “Google Phones,” with all others coming second. While this all sounds good for Google, Samsung might not be too happy about it.
Samsung has been actively developing Tizen for such a scenario, and it only helps that the Galaxy phones are a brand in themselves. If Samsung can perfect Tizen and somehow bring devs to create a full-fledged app market which is highly unlikely, Samsung could ditch Android but since that doesn’t seem very possible, at least not in the near future, it will be interesting to see how Samsung reacts.
It could also be that these reports about Samsung and then Huawei planning to leave android forced Google to come out as a brand in the smartphone scene before that happened, but that’s another topic.
Moreover, Google is not new to anti-competitive behaviour. It has been sued over several times for anti-competitive practices in several parts of the world before and it does have a potentially unfair advantage over its partners, and now rivals, when it comes to Android smartphones. Google will have early access to the code because, well, they write it. And since Google has full control of the software and hardware, they don’t need to heavily re-skin the software to suit their hardware. Google will be operating on Apple’s level head on, while Samsung and others are left behind, as the “other” brands who manufacture android phones and they will be irritated by it to say the least.
Although Bloomberg reports that Google has deliberately “firewalled” Osterloh’s hardware division from the Android development team in an effort to treat Google phones in the same manner as other OEMs.
Hiroshi Lockheimer, who runs the Android unit and is a longtime Osterloh pal, says his group will treat the hardware team like any customer. “Samsung is a very important partner, as is LG, Huawei and so on,” he says. “Rick is an important partner. Samsung tells us confidential information about their product line, their plans. We won’t tell LG that, and vice versa. That continues. Everyone is treated the same, including Rick’s team.
This indicates Google does not want to play the advantage card, and it hopes to still partner with other OEMs to create more Android devices. Google could then – in an effort to soften the blow to the various OEMs – potentially hold off on updating their own devices and provide the code to OEMs with enough of a head start for them to adjust it for their devices.
This deliberate nerfing/delaying might not trouble the usrs as well since nobody is going to be waiting as eagerly as they do once a new version of Android is launched or announced. If every OEM is able to update devices as soon as Google launches the new Android to the public, given a fair amount of headstart it could also help the fragmented Android scenario.
The Google Pixel is not an Android phone, it is the Google phone, that difference is mild but important. With Google’s AI bot integrated not just in the phone but a range of other devices by Google, buying into that ecosystem instead of Apple’s or Amazon’s becomes a more tempting prospect especially for Google fns who have had to buy their hardware from other places even if it did run Google’s software.
And if rumours about Google readying a full fledged desktop OS are true, be it Andromeda or something else, it will further strengthen Google’s hardware ecosystem powered by Google’s own AI and the deep knowledge that Google has accumulated over the years. No other company is better suited than Google to provide that personalized home software and hardware ecosystem. And it will come down to one question, will consumers pick a Google phone over an Android phone?
We’ve seen what Google can do with software. Android is the world’s most popular mobile operating system by far, with an 87.6 percent share of the worldwide market, according to IDC. But it didn’t conquer the world overnight.
Given time, there’s no telling what Google might do with hardware. This is a smart step for Android to take. It’s a necessary step, but let’s remember that it’s also the first step.
Would you buy into this future that Google’s hardware promises? How do you think OEMs will react? Should they feel betrayed? Express your thoughts in the comments below!