Google shocked everyone watching the I/O 2022 keynote this week as an entire lineup of Pixel devices coming over the next year were revealed at the typically hardware-free developer event. While I’m excited to see what a fully realized Pixel ecosystem looks like, I can’t help but wonder what impact it could have on the wider Android market.
Google had a toe dipped in the hardware business for some time now, over a decade if you count the Nexus line that debuted in January of 2010. However, things ramped up when it purchased Motorola and Nest in 2011 and 2014, respectively. While the former didn’t pan out as many likely hoped, Google SVP of Devices & Services Rick Osterloh, former President and COO of Motorola, has been integral to the company’s hardware efforts.
Between the Pixel phones, Pixel Buds and Nest family of products, you could argue that Google is in over its head, but with the addition of a Pixel Watch and a Pixel Tablet sometime next year, it is jumping into the deep end. The question is whether Google will manage a graceful dive that doesn’t cause too many waves in the larger Android ecosystem or a full cannonball.
Here’s a closer look at what Google has planned and what it could mean for Android.
Witness the power of a fully armed and operational Pixel ecosystem
When Google launched the original Pixel back in 2016, it was very well received by reviewers, but not much of a commercial success. This has been a consistent theme for the lineup until the launch of the more affordable Pixel A-Series, and now finally a flagship with Google announcing that the Pixel 6 already outsold the Pixel 4 and Pixel 5 combined.
The point is that the Pixel has never been any kind of meaningful threat to the market share of other Android manufacturers like Samsung or Motorola. As such, some of the Pixel-exclusive features Google has offered with its in-house phones, such as the now sadly gone free unlimited photo and video storage, and most recently, impressive camera features like Magic Eraser and Face Unblur, weren’t something its Android competitors would worry about.
With this week’s announcements that dynamic could shift. Currently, even the most diehard Pixel fan could only depend on the brand to meet their phone and earbuds needs. If they were in the market for a tablet or a smartwatch, they had to look elsewhere. This, in turn, opens that buyer up to looking at the rest of the lineup from the other manufacturer as everyone seems to have learned from Apple’s “ecosystem is king” mantra.
Ambient computing, or the idea that your network of devices should essentially stay out of your way while ensuring that you always have what you need, was one of the central themes of the Pixel announcements during the keynote, Google calls it “better together.” While opinions on Apple’s products may differ, it's hard to deny that the company has the most cohesive ecosystem of products that work best when a user is fully bought in. Samsung has certainly been working toward the same goal across its lineup, but while Samsung works closely with Google, it isn’t ultimately in complete control of its software destiny.
Google has been pushing this idea since at least 2019 and it has been apparent in software like Fast Pair that allows for quick and easy connections between devices without complications. And notably this isn’t something Google limits to its own products; Fast Pair is available for anyone to use. However, if Google hits its release dates, it will have a fully operational ecosystem by the end of 2023. Plus, it could keep some of the best integrations to itself to create a Googlefied version of that walled garden utopia Apple fans love.
The discussions of “better together” and the focus on creating a ubiquitous network of devices for users all came as the lead-in to the section of the presentation about Google’s devices. Google highlighted a number of its partners during the keynote, but we didn’t get anything close to the Wear OS powered by Samsung moment from I/O 2021.
Be careful not to choke on your aspirations
It’s unfortunate that I’ve landed on two quotes from the dark side, but I’m sticking with it. While there is a chance that Google’s hardware ecosystem could alienate some Android manufacturers, there are some crucial reasons why I don’t ultimately think it’s a massive concern — even if Google’s new products find a great deal of commercial success.
The biggest reason is that it isn’t in Google’s best interest. Google is an ad company first and foremost. It derives vastly more profit from the billions of non-Pixel devices running Android than it could hope to from even the most wildly successful projections for the Pixel ecosystem panacea that I’ve painted above. This is essentially the same reason that I find most assertions regarding Google compromising user privacy to be disingenuous as it would fundamentally destroy Google’s entire business model if it broke trust with its users.
So that deals with Google taking its Android ball and going home, but looking at the other side of the coin, where would other Android manufacturers turn? We’ve seen efforts from Samsung, Huawei and others to build their own operating system and they have universally failed. If Samsung can’t manage it, it's safe to say that none of the other Android manufacturers have it within their power to do so. Given that it becomes hard to imagine what Google would need to do in order to force one, let alone all, of the other Android manufacturers to try to move elsewhere.
Returning to the original question I posed with the headline, could the Pixel ecosystem be the death of Android as we know it? Yes, just not in the sense that it will kill it, but rather change it fundamentally. I hope that Google’s hardware ecosystem helps it to bolster some of the areas of Android that have been historically weak, tablets and wearables, and that the underlying software that makes Pixel devices “better together” extends throughout Android rather than benefiting Google alone. If Google can pull that off, it will make the next several years in the mobile world far more interesting.