Renouncing the Nexus Legacy Priced the Pixel into a Battle it May Not Win
As with almost every Google launch, the Pixel phones have been leaked to no end. Months ahead of things we and other Android news sources have reported on various things like the likelihood of locked bootloaders on carrier variants, colors, and specifications.
We also knew that HTC would be manufacturing the phones, regardless of Google’s admission, and that they would target the premium-end of the market. I wrote a series of articles a few months ago urging Google to produce an uber flagship to contend with Apple and Samsung and on the surface they did just that. But like beauty, that flagship device is only skin deep and when one digs deep it is clear that Google is taking its phones and Android in a new direction, one that stands to leave enthusiasts in the lurch.
When I wrote my Pixel article I stated: It’s time for Google to lead Android with an uber-premium Pixel branded flagship that follows Apple’s lead by not compromising on features” and I still feel that way. Android needs a cheerleader, a device that will be “the” phone people think of when they hear the name Android. This device needs to “not compromise” on features, and earn itself the ability to cost the same as a competing phones from Apple and Samsung. Google needs to steer the ship, not a company like Samsung or LG. But Google, following their manufacturer of choice’s example, falls short. Take water resistance for example:
Sony and Samsung have been offering water resistant phones for years now and while we can see the benefit of it, it remained a niche feature, a check-mark on a spec sheet. All of that changed when Apple unveiled the iPhone 7 featuring similar resistance to Android competitors. Instead of being niche, or nice to have, there simply is no longer any room for a $700 “flagship” to ship sans water resistance without a beneficial reason for its omission. The LG V20 is a great example trading water resistance for a removable battery compartment and is perfectly acceptable for people who purchase that device — it’s a reasonable compromise that ultimately benefits those who trade the feature with another function, specifically one that’s rare nowadays.
The Pixel phones ship with no water resistance other than the typical splash proofing; hardly any protection at all. While on a Nexus phone – that primarily targeted power users – water resistance can be overlooked, the Pixel phone targets your next door neighbor, not you. Google’s advertising push, marketing, and appeal is for the common person, the family, just the people who benefit most from this feature. Fluent, a customer acquisition firm, provided us data showing that 56% of consumers desire waterproofing (or water resistance) from their next smartphone. Simply put, flagships shipping in late 2016 and forward that do not offer water resistance are dead in the water (pun intended) if they plan to be neck-and-neck with Samsung and Apple in the most premium of all brackets.
Secondly these Pixel phones mark the end of Nexus devices and catering to the developer market, possibly for good and entirely. While there was hope that Google would still produce a Nexus phone to cater towards the developer market, it is clear Nexus phones are dead and the Pixel is not built with our demographic in mind. Further, it was revealed today that the bootloaders on the Verizon variant would be locked.
Combine this with further difficulty rooting new Nougat devices with the new dual system partition and it begins to paint a very grim outlook. Hope remains for the unlocked models from Google as they will ship with an unlockable bootloader, but for how much longer will Google’s future phones continue to do so? Furthermore, it has been speculated that many Pixel features won’t make it to other devices, even Nexus phones. Android 7.1 won’t be available until late this year and only as a developer preview. What was once an Android flagship running the latest and greatest, the Nexus 6P, is now looking like a second tier citizen.
Finally we come down to cost. While there is a myriad of reasons why you shouldn’t spend north of $650 for a smartphone, Samsung and Apple have proven the case as to why you should spend that money on their phones. Google however, has none of that, or at least very little. Google has neither the software unification of Apple nor the feature set of Samsung and if you count out features like the missing water resistance and OIS that other top tier phones ship with, you end up with an noncompetitive device. Further, many of the benefits you get from a Pixel phone like Google Assistant, Photos, and other services are available on almost any Android device through various means, and even iOS. Those that aren’t may be made part of the Google ecosystem through updates or new hardware also announced at the event (which is actually priced very competitively in contrast to the Pixel devices). There will still apparently be Pixel only features; which of those will make it to other devices is unknown but Google Care, the 24/7 support, is unlikely and is a nice feature, but Samsung+ and Apple offer similar services.
So that leaves us with one stand out feature, updates. Samsung has proven a resolve this year that we have never seen from them before, shipping security updates faster than almost everyone else. How much longer will the Pixel phones have a dramatic advantage in this area is anyone’s guess and how the consumer market views updates is still unknown. While people like to know they are secure, do “feature adds” really make a dramatic difference to the buying public?
Google has shifted dramatically lately. Barring the misstep that has been Allo, which was hardly mentioned today, Google has started to try appealing to the every person. Google Photos, Maps, Home are all now catered more towards the same consumer group as Apple than the tech-centric market Google has been for years. Partnering with Verizon, while I feel it was the wrong decision, in the US can help further that push as Verizon has done better with exclusives than many competitors like AT&T.
Will people notice or look past the lack of water resistance, microSD expansion, and wide feature sets, compared to competing Android phones and the iPhone? Will Google be able to avoid the failings of past Nexus devices that will quickly move consumers away like uncontrollable battery drain out that comes and goes, or software lag and jank? Other Android phones can argue a lot of these things away by features or benefits, but the Pixel phone arrives to us with few. Only time will tell, but if you wanted an affordable developer friendly phone it looks like we should start looking elsewhere.
Hiroshi Lockheimer said that 8 years from now we will be talking about October 4th, 2016, and he’s right. Its the day Google became an Android phone manufacturer and is looking to change the landscape forever. Unfortunately it looks like those changes are going to have some serious ramifications that will affect those who loved the platform and its banner devices most.