Yesterday, Google announced two new smartphones, the Pixel and the Pixel XL. Unfortunately, Google’s plan to copy Apple by releasing its own smartphones is fundamentally flawed and doomed to fail in its current form.
Let’s take a step back, in case you missed yesterday’s news. The Pixel smartphones will be sold directly to consumers through Google’s website, in retailers like Best Buy and exclusively through Verizon Wireless for folks who want the phone tied to a contract. Unlike the Nexus devices, which were focused on developers and are now being left in the past, Pixel smartphones are targeted right at consumers. They now run the purest version of Android you can get.
Android is at the heart of the problem.
What has already been a terribly fragmented platform is now even worse. As I argued yesterday, Google left its most die-hard fans, the folks who bought Nexus smartphones, out in the cold by releasing Pixel with its early access to Android 7.1 Nougat. This action suggests that Google doesn’t care much for the folks who purchased its flagship Android smartphones in the past.
Worse, it now suggests that Pixel owners are getting exclusive early access to software, which means Nexus users – once promised to be first in line for these software updates – will receive the updates later. The new software will slowly trickle out to smartphones made by other manufacturers; I wince at the thought of how long it will take to see Google Assistant on my brand new AT&T Galaxy Note 7. Worse, can we trust Google to issue updates to these phones in the future if it already broke its promise on the Nexus program?
Apple, by comparison, always updates phones that are several years old, no questions asked, no waiting.
Google may be acting a bit more like Apple by releasing two smartphones under its own brand, but that, too, is an entirely different battlefield than the one Apple is on with its iPhones.
Apple competes with Android smartphone makers, not itself. With Pixel, Google is now going to try to sell smartphones in a space where its partners are also competing. Samsung is the king of the Android smartphone market, how can Google possibly try to play on that level? Why even try to compete in the same market as your partners?
“But Todd,” you might say, “Google isn’t trying to sell millions of these phones. That’s what its partners are for.”
Then what is Google trying to do that’s different than Nexus?
I don’t fully understand or perhaps appreciate what Google’s end-goal is here. Nexus made more sense to me. That program allowed developers and dedicated Android users to buy pure Android devices. It served, perhaps in some ways, as a sounding board for what Android makers could do with Android, should they choose to do so. Nexus devices were sold through carriers, yes, but the messaging wasn’t so much “This is Google’s phone,” as is the case with Pixel.
While the Pixel smartphones look genuinely compelling and feature rich thanks to Google Assistant, Pixel will only live on as a fraction of Android’s user base, one that continues to drive a wedge between Android features available on Google hardware and features available on other Android smartphones. This is going to confuse consumers and break the trust of Nexus users, not draw them toward the new platform. Pixel hasn’t only fragmented Android further, it has fragmented the very idea of pure Google smartphones and hardware.