Google's foray into hardware with the Pixel, Home and View
By Nikhil Kanamarla
Google is shifting from a search engine to the smartphone powerhouse. Android is the operating system of most tablets and smartphones in the world (87.6%). Google wants to not only create the software but the hardware ecosystem surrounding it.
Android is an open source platform and a variety of OEMS (original equipment manufactures) create hardware in the form of phones and tablets through the Open Handset Alliance. Today there are billions of smartphones running android from a variety of companies; however, there are still critical problems with the Android smartphone ecosystem. Many OEMS change the original Android software to add custom features and a unique design. However this often backfires, which causes horrendous software (form and function) and a slow phone over time. In addition the arrival of new software updates have to be approved by carriers in a slow and expensive process. Also carriers add their own apps often called bloatware, slowing down the phone and occupying user storage. In addition, many Android smartphones run outdated software for months after Google produces an update. This makes them vulnerable to security threats and decreases user satisfaction. Fragmentation has lead to the common stigma of Android to be of inferior quality in the western world.
Thankfully, Google has been creating smartphones with a partnership with OEMS on a small scale. These phones were hailed as the Nexus line and brought high performance, stock android, and quick updates at a low price. The Nexus phones tried to set an example for what Android phones should be. OEMS vehemently opposed Google’s efforts to control Android. Given increasing problems of fragmentation in the android ecosystem, Google has decided to take an Apple-esque approach to creating smartphones. Apple builds its smartphones by creating the software and hardware from the ground up. Then Apple optimizes the software with the hardware which is a key part the quality of Apple Products in a process called vertical integration. Steve Jobs ushered in this design philosophy early on, the launch of the Macintosh as a key example. Steve Jobs wanted end to end control over the hardware and the software. Google doesn’t want to leave it to the OEMS to protect the future of Android. If you want something done properly, you have to do it yourself, end to end.
Google has recently announced the Pixel and Pixel XL at their October 4th event. The phones have their hardware and software built and optimized by Google. The Pixel phones are very similar to each other in specifications. The main point of differentiation between the two sizes is that the Pixel is a 5 inch phone with a 1080PI display and the Pixel XL is 5.5 inch phone with a 2K display. They both have 4GB of RAM, Snapdragon 421 Processor, and a fast and accurate fingerprint sensor. They come in a familiar metal design with a semi glass back that differentiates it from the crowd. However it also has large bezels on the front of the phone, flanking the display. In the age of slim bezels and increased immersion (when consuming media) from Android smartphones, it’s a small flaw in the design. Another significant feature of the Pixel is the camera module. The camera has laser autofocus, incredible optical image stabilization and large pixels. The camera has been revered by industry professionals such as WIRED, who put the camera quality in line with the iPhone 7. The phone comes with 24/7 chat and phone support, free storage for photos and videos, and 32GB and 128GB configurations. Customer support is a critical issue for Google in the greater cold war against Apple. Support through an app is a good first step. However, if Google wants to beat Apple it must gain a retail presence. I visited the pilot Google retail store in London recently, Google strived to make a open and friendly environment when designing this store. Google has recently added a retail store in NYC. Now Google must expand this program rapidly to the rest of Europe and Northern America.
Google also has a mobile Virtual Reality platform called Daydream. The platform is at an early stage, but it will still be able to create virtual experiences for games and video streaming services. The Pixel works with the first headset for Daydream platform called Daydream View. Daydream View is $80 mobile driven, virtual reality headset created by Google. The headset represents a stark departure from previous VR headsets. The View is designed to be worn for long periods of time, is comfortable and stylish. The most important part of the Daydream View is that the headset is easy to use and portable. The View also comes with a precision remote for rich VR experiences that is stored in the headset.
The hallmark of the Pixel and the future of android is the Google assistant. The assistant, like Google now brings contextual information such as weather, traffic conditions, interesting articles from your favorite websites, fitness tracking, reminders, stocks, and sports results. The assistant also has a conversational UI like Siri, but much more human. For example if you were to ask “who is the president of the US”, the assistant would return that it’s Barack Obama. Then if you asked “How old is he?”, it would return that the president is 55. The key part in the Google Assitant is that it can understand who you are talking about and keep the conversation going.The Google assistant also integrates into the Google Home connected speaker. The Google Home is similar to the Amazon Echo. The 1$30 Google Home comes in a appealing design and has a good speaker for playing music. The Google Home’s clear advantage is its cloud infrastructure, AI assistant and search engine, and integration with other hardware products such as the Chromecast. This makes the Home a much better product than the $180 Amazon Echo.
However, there are a few drawbacks to the Pixel, such as limited availability and the lack of waterproofing. The Pixel has a water resistant rating of IP53 which means if the phone gets slightly wet, it will still operate. The Google phone is only available directly from Google or through a Verizon contract. This means that many people won’t be able to buy the Pixel. However, carrier exclusivity is a smart move for Google. Carrier exclusivity means a high amount of marketing from Verizon and more control of the bloatware on the device. This move is also symbolic of the first iPhone, that was only available on AT&T. Also Google traditionally has not been good at making hardware with it’s only major success being the Chromecast. The main issues Google faces for industry domination is expanding availability of the Pixel, marketing the Pixel heavily, and keeping up with demand. The Pixel is expected to sell over 4 million units this year and is the best android phone on the market.
More important than the features of the device is what the Pixel represents. Google’s approaching Android with strategy of vertical integration. Vertical integration means fast software updates, better battery life, and better performance even with slower processors. This would solve many of Android’s fragmentation issues and position Google to conquer Apple and Samsung in the high end smartphone market. The Pixel’s arrival comes at the perfect time. Apple has not been innovating on the iPhone recently. The iPhone 7 comes with an iterative design and a few new features. Samsung has been making decent high end smartphones with great hardware and decent software. However, the recent battery explosion scandal with the Galaxy Note 7 has put a big dent in their reputation. Google is in a position to dominate the entire market, just like Apple is 1998 with the release of the iMac and later the iPod, Powerbook, iPhone Etc.