New phone launches these days are pretty darn consistent. By and large, they’re all about the hardware and why this latest model is light years better than the one you saw last year: the snazzier design, the smaller bezels, the sharper display, and so on.
At this week’s Pixel 3 launchapalooza, Google took a decidedly different approach. Sure, its presenters glossed over some of those standard hardware high points — physical niceties that set the phone apart from its predecessor and give this latest model a reason to exist — but the real focus, and the sell for most people, was something far less tangible. Cementing a strategy the company started with its first Pixel two years ago and then refined with last year’s second-gen model, Google basically told us: Hey, hardware is fine and all, but everyone’s got the same stuff — and none of it is especially exciting anymore. Where we’re gonna shine is in an area where no one else can compete: software.
Not just software by itself, mind you, but software that meaningfully improves the real-world phone-using experience — and software that doesn’t stop evolving the minute you open the box but gets consistently better over time.
At its core, it’s a sound strategy. I’ve been saying for years now that smartphones themselves have become mere vessels in our mobile tech adventures: The phones are simply frameworks for the more impactful software, ecosystem, and overall user experiences that exist inside — and those latter pieces of the puzzle are the ones that affect us most significantly on a day-to-day basis over the life of a modern mobile device.
And Google, as a device-maker, has some unique assets it can mobilize in those areas. No other Android manufacturer has the incentive and ability to match its commitment — or even come close to matching its commitment — to providing timely and ongoing updates to existing devices. And delivery speed aside, only Google’s phones come with a guaranteed three full years of regular OS updates. For a device you’re spending several hundred dollars to own, that effectively means your investment will last 150 percent longer with a Pixel than with any other Android device, which at best will have a two-year window for software support (and usually with plenty of asterisks attached).
Google also gives Pixel owners free and unlimited full-resolution backups to Google Photos for the device’s entire three-year life — a benefit whose value can’t be overstated in a time when most of us take hundreds of photos and videos a month. And the company provides regular improvements to areas outside the operating system, too — like the laundry list of improvements announced for the Pixel 3’s camera and the super-intriguing robot call-screener feature launched alongside the phone, both of which will be making their way to the previous-gen Pixel models soon.
Google vs. everyone else
So why can Google do all this stuff that other phone-makers can’t? Well, it’s two-fold: First and most plainly, Google is the one company within Android that completely controls both hardware and software — including, crucially, its front-facing and behind-the-scenes services. That alone opens up the door to some levels of integration, support, and ecosystem-wide consistency that simply aren’t possible in less holistic arrangements.
But beyond that, Google is the one phone-maker for whom hardware sales are but a small and relatively inconsequential part of the company’s bottom line. For Google, giving you a device that gets continually better over the course of a few years makes perfect business sense: You have a great phone with an outstanding user experience, and that encourages you to use it more often. The more you use it, the more you use Google services — which, naturally, are as front and center as can be on a Pixel phone, even more so than on most Android devices — and the more you use Google services, the more data Google can collect in order to serve you more effective targeted ads (across both Google apps and the internet at large, which you’re also gonna be using more often thanks to your ever-improving device).
And where does Google make the lion’s share of its income? Yep, you guessed it: from its ad business.
Compare that to any other phone manufacturer, and the difference is striking: Everyone else makes money mostly by hawking hardware. That means the less often you upgrade your device, the less money the company pulls in. Google aside, then, pretty much every phone manufacturer has an inherent motivation to encourage you to buy new devices as often as possible — and guess what? Giving you an experience that gets meaningfully and consistently better over time actively works against that goal.
And yet — the ever-present conflict in that scenario — software increasingly plays the most important role in our day-to-day device-using experiences. Software is the part of a phone we interact with most intimately and often. It’s the area that has the potential to keep these tiny pocket-dwelling computers of ours feeling fresh and compelling year after year, if the manufacturer is so inspired.
And let’s not forget, as I’ve mentioned before: The most common complaints about Android — the messy UIs, the overlapping services, the confusing inconsistencies, the performance hiccups, the slow and unreliable upgrades and resulting dated devices — all revolve exclusively around software. The Pixel is essentially the sole high-end phone where none of those issues applies.
For all of the Pixel plan positives, three big questions remain — and they should be fairly familiar to frequent Google observers at this point: First, will Google find a way to convince mainstream consumers of the value its proposition provides? I’d say that’s a pretty big “if,” given the company’s shaky past in the marketing department — but hey, who knows? Maybe one of these years, it’ll figure it out.
Second, can Google actually make the product available broadly enough that regular folks will see it, remember it, and then actually buy it? Considering that Verizon is the only U.S. carrier set to sell the Pixel 3 and the fact the U.S. mobile market, crazy as it sounds, still revolves mostly around carrier phone sales, it sure doesn’t seem like this’ll be the year we’ll see that happen.
And finally, will Google stick with this strategy and remain fully committed long enough to give it the opportunity to thrive? That’s perhaps the most pressing question of all. I genuinely think having its own self-controlled hardware has become too important to Google’s future to give up and that the company deliberately planned this to be a long-term, slow-to-play-out strategy. But we all know that commitment has never been Google’s greatest strength.
For now, what we can say is this: Google is clearly playing its own game with its Pixel phones — and if you play your own game and still end up losing, well, you’ve got no one but yourself to blame.
Sign up for my weekly newsletter to get more practical tips, personal recommendations, and plain-English perspective on the news that matters.
[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]