The Google Pixel is a device that fascinates me, because it is a device I believed would never exist. For years, I have been yelling to the clouds about how Google voluntarily giving up control of the Android user experience to carriers and device manufacturers led to Android phones (aside from the Nexus lineup and other rarities) being compromised by their bad judgment. This didn’t keep Android from being dominant in the smartphone market, in fact, this is the very reason it grew to its current market share. Contrary to belief, market share is not something you gain by delivering a quality product, but rather by giving the right incentives to the chain of command between the operating system vendor and the consumer who buys the phone. But again, I am less concerned by which operating system is “successful” in numbers, and more concerned by who has the better product.
The argument always presented to why Google didn’t retain more control of Android handsets is that it would be a repeat of what happened with PCs, where all PCs run the same version of Windows and little leeway is given to OEMs to differentiate their product aside from price. This led to the race to the bottom you saw with PC prices, and while PCs are definitely appealing to price-conscious consumers, they are not a profitable business for anyone but Apple. Android phones have the leeway to differentiate their product, but none of the companies making Android phones today have the taste or competence to make anything better than plain old stock Android.
It’s in this context that Google found themselves wanting a bigger slice of the premium market pie. Much like how the Chromebook Pixel was originally intended to entice users of premium Apple laptops over to the Chromebook lifestyle (it failed, because only the hardware was premium, and the software was still Just A Web Browser), the Pixel is Google’s attempt at making a phone that competes directly with the iPhone by giving a premium Android experience. But when you make stock Android, which is already the best Android experience, freely licensable by device OEMs, how do you make your device even more premium?
You differentiate with the one strength Google has that hardly anyone can compete with: artificial intelligence.
Google Assistant, the souped-up Siri competitor that Google unveiled at its I/O conference earlier this year, is being touted as a feature of the Pixel phone. It doesn’t actually seem like it will be coming to non-Pixel devices, Android or otherwise, anytime soon, if ever. Nothing about Google Assistant actually requires the Pixel to be possible, in fact, I’m very curious to see how long it will take for the Android rooting community to patch it onto other phones unofficially, but it is purposefully being withheld from existing Nexus devices and partners’ Android headsets. This is how you make the Pixel differentiated from any other phone running stock Android, or more crucially to Google’s goals, how you differentiate the Pixel from the iPhone.
The running narrative surrounding the iPhone for the last few years has been that Apple is not very good at cloud services. As cloud services become more and more integral to the mobile experience, many of us worry that Apple won’t be able to keep up, either due to lack of skill in the area or having the quality of their products held back by their pro-privacy stance. Because Google has years of experience in searching images on the Web, Google Photos can allow you to search for multiple objects within the same photo. Apple’s Photos app is much more primitive in comparison, with no ability to learn new nouns that can be searched for within pictures, and being limited to searching photos containing one specific object as opposed to combinations in search queries. This is only one product, but this kind of gap in functionality builds up as you integrate more and more cloud services into your life. Google is becoming better at Apple’s specialties than Apple is getting better at Google’s, and this could be a big deal in the coming years.