When we think of Google, it is all but natural to immediately think about the search engine, and the plethora of software (such as Android and Chrome) and services (such as Gmail). But, what we immediately do not think of is the hardware side of Google. But the Mountain View, California-based tech giant is increasing its focus on hardware, and the winds of change could start blowing with the upcoming Pixel and Pixel XL phones.
Over the past few months, it has become clear that smartphone upgrades are now iterative in nature. No revolutions, no attempts to redefine the spec sheet and no reinventing the wheel, so to say. Well, your phone, perhaps, now has 4GB or 6GB of RAM, which is most likely at least as much, if not more, than what your laptop has. Therefore, the entire focus has shifted to making things incrementally better.
The Nexus smartphones have always been known as “Google phones”, because that is how Google intended Android as a smartphone operating system to be.
When the likes of Samsung, HTC, Sony and others started wrapping Android with customizations and extra features that divided opinion on genuine utility, Nexus stood out as the shining beacon of hope. That one day, all will be well. But while Nexus smartphones showcased the technical prowess all along, they always seemed to fall short on the hardware aspect. And that somewhat blew up the entire ‘reference device’ persona as well. The reason for that was simple—Google was still relying on someone else to make the Nexus hardware (Motorola, LG and Huawei, for example), and not entirely focusing on that aspect of the package.
Unlike the iPhone where Apple has complete control over hardware and software, as well as the eventual integration between the two, Google allowed the phone makers a lot more wriggle room in terms of the specifications that Nexus phones packed in. Not that they were wrong, but it seemed that Samsung always had the march on these reference phones, when it came to sheer specs. What remained in the Nexus’ favour was a clean and unhindered Android experience, and for most users, that had more value than perhaps anything else. But that is changing, irrespective of which smartphone manufacturer makes the next few iterations of the Pixel phones.
The Nexus 6P made by Huawei, which is last year’s Nexus phone, still remains a great smartphone, for example. But, it never had the wow-factor, as say the Samsung Galaxy S7, the LG G5 or even the OnePlus 3, for that matter, albeit for varying reasons.
And this is where a new start becomes necessary.
Google wants to change the branding. The biggest hint is perhaps the fact that the Nexus launcher app, is now being replaced by the Pixel Launcher app—or so the unverified leaked app installer package version seems to suggest. If that is indeed the case, Nexus will probably no longer exist as the primary “Google phone”, and its place will be taken by Pixel. But why, you wonder, would Google want to scrap a brand as popular and recognizable as Nexus? There is an indication that they want to bring all the hardware, on which Google will focus even more, under one umbrella—Pixel phones, convertible computing devices and more.
Microsoft is doing it with the Surface product line-up, which may be complete with the Surface phone expected to arrive next year.
But in Google’s ecosystem, whether Pixel be as big a perhaps the iPhone brand, is where the keys to success will lie eventually.
From what we are hearing, there will be two Pixel phones arriving this year—Pixel and Pixel XL. If they need to compete against the iPhone, while running a different operating system with its own unique power requirements, they cannot have middling hardware. Plus, they will have to content with flagships from the likes of Samsung, Motorola, Huawei and others. We are essentially looking at specs such as the 5-inch and 5.5-inch screen size options with the Full HD and Quad HD resolutions respectively, the newest Qualcomm Snapdragon processors, 4GB or 6GB RAM, the latest camera sensors, big batteries for power users and the usual portfolio of storage options, wireless connectivity etc. And if we may add, that multi-colour light bar, which is a part of the Chromebook Pixel, would look absolutely awesome on the phones too.
Google also needs to keep the recent developments in mind. This year’s iPhone refresh, the iPhone 7 and the iPhone 7 Plus, are trying to improve on the user experience—adding more power, improving battery life, completely new camera optics and a new operating system to boot. Some might consider the lack of any wholesale changes in the iPhone a disappointment, but with everything incrementally better, user experience becomes paramount. This again puts pressure on Android flagships. Secondly, Samsung is reeling under the impact of the Galaxy Note 7 debacle—Samsung has lost an estimated $26 billion in value since the explosive news about the phone’s habit to spontaneously combust emerged, according financial data company Factset, on 13 September.
Google, for all its tremendous strengths, is not yet known as a hardware company. And it perhaps realizes that fact. The hardware is the critical element, that will decide how well the famed Google software and services work. And the Pixel phones need to be completely polished products, and it is then that they will become the undeniable benchmarks for the rest of the Android phone makers to follow.