Did Google Double-cross its Android Partners?

October 7th, 2016

Clearly the name “Pixel, Phone by Google” isn’t very memorable. Instead, it’s an example of a company without a whole lot of experience in the consumer market trying to build a gadget that seems exclusive. True, Google also has Chromecast video streamers, which have been quite successful perhaps mostly due to its $35 purchase price. But that’s a notable exception.

In the past, Google partnered with different Android handset makers to market a line of devices sporting the pure, unadulterated Android experience known as Nexus. It wasn’t that features or performance was necessarily any better than the competition, but it served as a demonstration of Android technology, and for those who didn’t appreciate the junkware embedded on their gear by handset makers and wireless carriers, this was the way to go.

But, if anything, it illustrated the fundamental problem with Android, which is the inability to push updates, even critical security fixes, to hundreds of millions of customers. Indeed, people buy new Android gear only to find that the OS is a year or two old. For the first year, market share of a new Android OS is often in the single digits. Compare that to Apple, which totally controls the update process and usually earns an over 90% share of installed devices before the next iOS arrives.

Google has tried its hand at building mobile gear in the past, as the result of its failed purchase of Motorola Mobility. While the division was once a top-tier handset maker, it had fallen at hard times when Google acquired it in 2011 for the “discount” price of  $12.5 billion. But buying a failing company doesn’t magically make it successful, and all those patents held by Motorola weren’t helpful. So Google had a fire sale and sold off the division in 2014 to Lenovo for $2.91.

Motorola handsets are still being made, but market share is still no great shakes.

That unfortunate experience clearly didn’t sour Google on trying it once again, on a reduced scale. So they hired former Motorola hardware executives and engineers and created the Pixel. While the brand name is used on other Google products, it doesn’t really have a history. So far as Android handsets are concerned, it’s all brand new.

But otherwise, it’s hard to consider it to be more than just another generic high-end Android handset with little that’s distinctive. Other than the promise of an uncontaminated Android interface, the promise of superior camera software, and unlimited online photo storage, the five-inch Pixel and the 5.5-inch Pixel XL seem no better or worse than any competing smartphone.

Maybe worse.

So an editorial feature from AppleInsider’s Daniel Eran Dilger reveals that, despite having suggested retail prices that are the same as the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus, performance is much slower. In fact, it doesn’t quite match that of last spring’s Samsung Galaxy S7. It’s also slower in some respects than an iPhone SE.

A published review from DXOMark, which rates cameras, concludes that the Pixel’s camera “didn’t perform as well as some of the other flagship phones, as it lost details in the shadows.”

So other than the tight integration with Google products and services, and the promise of 24/7 chat and voice support, there’s not really anything distinctive about the new smartphone. So far, it’s only available unlocked from Google or with the usual marketing gimmicks from Verizon Wireless. There’s no such thing as a Google Store to try one out and look at other gear from the company, such as there is.

It may present a reasonable experiment from Google to retest the manufacturing waters, but it’s hard to build a compelling case why any Android user, other than the power user curious about new things, would even care to buy one. Well, perhaps as an alternative to Samsung in light of the latter’s chronic problems with the Galaxy Note 7, and the desire to try something else.

To most people, the name Pixel won’t mean a thing, since the Google connection appears to have second billing. Why not call it a Google Phone? At least there’s brand recognition there. But the real problem is that Google has assembled a box with generic hardware that doesn’t offer the range of distinctive features that would allow it to stand out in a highly competitive market. It’s ho-hum. In a sense, it reminds me of the Amazon Fire Phone, another undistinguished smartphone that quickly crashed and burned.

One would think that if Google needed to make a name for itself as a hardware maker, it would build a device with the absolute fastest processor available. It would sport the best camera, and extra features, such as a fingerprint sensor, a display with enhanced color, stereo speakers and other components that would make it stand out. It also has generic looks that are reminiscent of any other Android handset.

How does a new manufacturer distinguish itself with mediocrity?

Consider the original 2007 iPhone as a means of comparison. Sure, it lacked a number of important features that only arrived later on. There wasn’t even an app store. But it did have a relatively large touchscreen display, a real email app and browser. It was what it was presented to be, a tiny mobile computer that included a telephone.

Perhaps Google will some day turn Pixel, Phone by Google into a product that customers will lust after. Or perhaps it’ll join Nexus handsets and the Amazon Fire Phone in the great dustbin of history. Unless Google delivers a version 2.0 that really and truly looks different and offers some unique features that will really appeal to customers, I don’t think Pixel is destined to go anywhere.

Besides, what are Google’s partners to think about the company pulling a Microsoft on them?

| Print This Article Print This Article

2 Responses to “Did Google Double-cross its Android Partners?”

  1. dfs says:

    The other day the LA Times Biz section ran a silly piece about how it is somehow destined that major software companies will morph into companies that put out hardware. I say it seems silly because with the single (and admittedly spectacular) exception of the Xbox I can’t think of a any occasion where a software outfit tried to move into hardware without falling on its face. History simply doesn’t suggest this corporate transition works.

    If the Pixel has any appeal at all, it’s mostly to developers, who may leap at the chance to create apps for pure unrejiggered Android rather than for the kloodged versions the phone mfrs. include with their products, and also to the relatively few end consumers who are hip enough to understand the advantage. Whether this consideration, which most end users will no doubt regard as impossibly esoteric, will generate enough support to make Pixel a success in the marketplace strikes me as extremely doubtful.

  2. DaveD says:

    Interesting that it is Verizon selling Google’s phone and not AT&T. I guess AT&T doesn’t want to do another 99 cents “Fire” sale after being “burned” by one too many new (priced at) iPhone-killer smartphone.

Leave Your Comment