Google launched a new phone . . . but that’s not the real news.
Let me explain.
Let’s be real. Unless Google built a physical rocket launcher into their new Pixel phone, nobody is really going to care. Apple won the smartphone wars a long time ago.
Google knows this. They also know the future of tech better than anyone in the world.
“Made by Google.”
This is what’s going to be on the phone. Google is now taking complete ownership of hardware and software on the phone. They basically copied Apple when it comes to hardware design. That’s not in dispute.
They knew they had no choice. They are preparing for the next war, and in order to win it, they can’t let it be run by their partners.
The war isn’t over who can create the next best smartphone.
Google and Apple are competing to create the “Smartest Phone.”
Source: Living with Google Assistant
The war is over who can create a smartphone that makes your life easier.
By all accounts, what they are creating is going to be the creepiest thing ever made.
It already tells you to leave 10 minutes early to get to your appointment that’s 5 miles away, and meanwhile you’re wondering “How in the world did Google know I have a birthday party to attend?”
So what exactly is Google trying to do, and how is the introduction of the new hardware going to help meet that goal? There are two components to it: what Google wants to do from a business point of view, and how Google can provide enough value to consumers to achieve their primary business goal.
Google is, has always been, and likely always will be, a search company. That was Google’s original mission and that’s where the company is getting most of its revenue even today. The holistic monetization business model — of using personalized data to serve relevant ads to relevant audiences — will likely not change any time in the immediate future. That’s why Google purchased Youtube: search for videos. That’s why they implemented and perfected Image search. That’s why they introduced voice search. You get my point — Google is all about optimizing their multifaceted search strategies to preserve its monopoly at a global level as the number-one search engine.
So how does this relate to Pixel? The Pixel phone is simply a drop in the ocean, where the ocean is defined as the end-to-end strategy for Google’s personalized search strategy. In order to take search to the next level (business goal), Google needs to take ownership over the hardware which can provide the ultimate amount of value to its user base on mobile phones. Google has attempted to achieve this goal in the past by purchasing the Android ecosystem and optimizing it.
Eventually, Google realized that controlling the software wasn’t enough. Google may have the most flexible development platform, but Apple’s better hardware made iPhones faster, more reliable, less prone to errors, easier to update and much more.
And this is where Pixel comes into play. The phone is an attempt for Google to level the field. To get the flexibility of controlling their own hardware, to innovate on both the software and the hardware side and to leverage the massive amount of data it’s already collecting from billions of users to create both the most convenient phone for its users and its best advertising platform for its business clients.
So how do Google and Apple compare (so far) in terms of their flagship phones:
Apple wins the hardware war on the surface, but it’s important to understand why Google has launched a smartphone, beyond the technical specs of the hardware.
Readers may find it a bit ironic to list innovation as one of the biggest reasons for Google to invest into their own hardware. That’s because the Pixel phone is hardly innovative when comparing it to Apple’s iPhone 7 and Samsung 7th generation phones.
Let’s change our way of looking at Pixel for a second, though.
Google has been controlling the software for Android phones for many years now. But with each version released by Google, we’ve seen very few memorable upgrades or “wow” moments. That’s primarily because Google’s past innovation has been very limited by external factors it couldn’t control.
Google has been forced to operate within the boundaries of the technical specs of the smartphones built and released by other manufacturers. When Apple wanted to make iPhone 7+ all about taking the best possible pictures and uploading them smoothly across social channels and into the cloud, they simply changed the hardware and upgraded the software. Before the Pixel phone, Google wouldn’t have been able to control anything but the software. They operated within the confines of the technical limitations set forth by other smartphone manufacturers.
Simply by having the option to fully control the hardware and the software side, Google is positioning itself to think more holistically about what matters to its users and how to deliver a “wow” experience across the board.
Knowing where Google wants to go and what they want to achieve, how does this change the comparison between Google and Apple?
With these side-by-side comparisons in mind, let’s see how Google’s phone launch plays into its overall company strategy: how the Google hardware paired with Google software can help them win the final tech war against Apple.
Long-term smartphone strategy
Anyone working in software development knows that most digital strategies are created for the next 12 to 18 months and executed accordingly. You plan your features, then you start building software, and you change gears when needed, depending on various internal or external factors.
By controlling both the hardware and the software of a smartphone, a company can actually implement hardware changes early on and enable software changes over time. Tesla is a great example of a company who has been able to execute on long-term strategies using this model. The hardware to support autopilot was included in the first-generation Tesla cars. Yet the first Tesla cars have received 8 updates over the years, getting the cars closer and closer to a smart autopilot model, one iteration at a time. Same with Apple’s 5s phone, the most popular phone currently on the market across all iPhones. Despite being 5 years old, the iPhone 5s still works great even with the latest iOS version.
With Pixel, Google is now entering the same elite group of manufacturers that can produce real value for customers over time by executing on multi-year roadmaps, since they control both the software and the hardware. The company can both innovate in the short/medium term and set itself up for success simply by implementing hardware that can be leveraged incrementally over time.
Controlling operating system versions, releases and software upgrades
As we all know, the Android market has been incredibly fragmented in terms of both device specs and the operating system version running on them. Whereas Apple currently only supports 3 iOS versions with most iOS customers being on iOS 8 and 9, there are 7 different Android versions on the market.
One of the biggest reasons why there are comparatively more Android OS versions than iOS versions is because Google cannot control Android software updates. Instead, they have to work through manufacturers (Samsung, LG, Nokia, etc) and phone carriers (Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile, etc) on when, where and how these updates are released to Android users across the world. Apple never had this problem, since they could simply push updates to all iPhone users’ devices directly without having to go through a middleman.
Being in charge of both the hardware and software gives Google 100% control over when their software upgrades are pushed out to their userbase and under what conditions. That means better platform stability, less maintenance and version control for older operating systems, better ability to manage OS defects and much more.
The road ahead towards IoT and VR enabled technologies
Smartphones are transitioning towards becoming the central hub for a variety of peripheral technologies that are already part of our everyday life. Smart devices — locks, thermostats, bulbs, cameras etc — and virtual reality-enabled glasses are gaining traction, pulling in new customers every day. And everyone is waiting to see how far and in what direction these technologies will go in the immediate future. Yet while their actual future is still open to imagination, one thing is clear: the importance of the smartphone as a connector between these technologies cannot be understated.
Google Pixel may not have any proprietary software for its first generation (read: unique features), putting it on par with other comparable smartphones. But as Google continues to iterate from both a hardware and software perspective, it can position its phones to better compete in the market. At the end of the day, Android users are already used to the idea of Google accessing and using their data to help them manage their time better.
Now that Google controls the hardware as well, the question becomes to what extent can Google create an enhanced experience connecting all other devices in the Google family (Chrome, Nest thermostat and Cameras, Google home) to produce the most personalized user experience out there.
There is a smartphone war happening as we speak, and it has been going on for almost a decade now. So far, it has been carried out between two unequal equals. Apple, the giant hardware manufacturer, and Google, the giant software producer. Before the Pixel phone, the biggest irony is that each company excelled where the other didn’t.
Let me explain.
For the last 9 years, Apple has been releasing one great phone after another. Their user experience is good, but their hardware has always been better. But Apple has always missed the cue on one critical piece: access to customer data. And that is what Google has always been successful at.
When you buy an Android phone you sign in to your Google account. Behind the scenes, Google starts recording a huge amount of data about you as a user, your preferences, your routine. Jokingly or not, oftentimes Google knows more about us than we do.
But Google never had real access to the hardware on which their software was installed. Not on a large scale, at least (the Nexus phone was the exception, of course).
Limited to work within the confines of phones created by various manufacturers and not able to control software updates for its Android platform, Google has always been like a bird trapped in a cage.
The Pixel phone is Google’s way of positioning itself to have full control of hardware, software, user experience, data points, integration points with their own variety of Internet of Things products and much more.
For the last ten years, Google and Apple have been like two cars racing each other on a highway at 130 miles an hour. Each in its lane, trying to race into the future. With Pixel, Google has just hit the gas pedal and veered into Apple’s lane.
It’ll be interesting to see how quickly Google will move and whether it will make Apple bite the dust in the long race towards the smartest phone. For now, Google is definitely better positioned to win.