Today, Tuesday, October 4th is Google’s biggest hardware event, all the leaks will tell you, with everything from a pair of “by Google” smartphones to Google Home smart speakers, new wireless routers, and a 4K Chromecast. But the overriding thing that Google will try to sell us is its vision of integrating that multiplicity of physical gadgets and trinkets into its digital empire of software and services. Just like Apple.
Google’s competition with Apple has always been asymmetric because that other California company has been able to control and fine-tune both the hardware and the operating system of its world-conquering iPhones and iPads. The Android alternative, as good as Google might try to make it, just can’t match the iPhone’s level of polish, coherence, and refinement, because the devices running it are out of Google’s hands. Today, Google is going to grasp that thorny issue by investing itself fully into the business of being a phone maker as well as software provider.
The full cachet of the Google brand will be leveraged for a marketing campaign built around “made by Google” and “phone by Google” messages. It’s shaping up to be an abandonment of the Nexus program, which was practically a hobby inside Google HQ, in favor of what looks like a more serious and integrated approach to Google’s long-term mobile strategy. Judging by pre-event leaks, the first and most prominent benefit of Google’s hardware-plus-software approach will be its Daydream virtual reality platform — which is likely to be best experienced on the upcoming Google Pixel and Pixel XL phones.
Read more: Google is taking on the iPhone directly
Synergy is a tainted term in the tech world, having been sullied by a steady succession of invocations tied to ill-fated mergers. AOL Time Warner, Palm and HP, eBay and its “power of three” strategy with PayPal and Skype — none of those materialized into actual synergy, and so we’re wont to just shrug off the word as mere puffery. But synergy is the thing that all modern tech successes are built on. Apple’s App Store relies on a consistent, unfragmented, and predictably powerful iPhone platform on which developers and game makers can build their wares. That same hardware relies on said game makers to capitalize on its power and make the annual spec upgrades meaningful and worthwhile.
Google is rectifying the asymmetric nature of its struggle vs. Apple
What Google is aiming to do today is to become the world’s second Apple. By controlling the hardware on which Android runs, Google can emulate Apple’s leading example by synchronizing its software and hardware improvements — so that they complement and support one another — and it can also offer up a reliable platform for developers to build on. Consider how nascent Google Daydream is, and consider also the consequently high level of risk for any serious developer to invest time and effort into developing for it. An iPhone-like tier of Google-certified premium Android smartphones — with VR made integral to the OS — provides at least some reassurance and risk mitigation for prospective Android VR devs. That anti-fragmentation concern is evident in Google’s choice of closely matched, almost identical specs between the 5-inch Pixel and 5.5-inch Pixel XL.
To compete in the mobile world without control of the hardware your software runs on is tantamount to playing a lottery. One day Samsung will thrill you with its excellent hardware design and class-leading cameras; the next day it will throw you into depression with its exploding batteries. Google tried doing things that way: most of Android’s history up to this point has been a narrative of negotiated mutually beneficial hardware and software development between Google and its Android partners. But the synergy that Google’s able to obtain with self-interested hardware manufacturers is a suboptimal compromise. The interests of the Mountain View company and its partners are as likely to clash as they are to align, leading to such frictions as Google’s spat with Samsung over the latter’s excessive customizations of Android. This summer it was revealed that Google has begun a naughty list of partner companies with the intent of shaming them into doing what Google thinks is right (like more timely security patches and software updates).
Someone needs to be in charge of premium Android phones
Google’s broad Android strategy won’t change, and it will still rely on others to build on top of its software and expand its already extraordinary reach to the furthest corners of the world. But Google will now also be responsible for its own phone lineup, aiming to secure the premium Android tier and attract what it’s missing: more spendthrift mobile users that would both spur development of Android apps and raise the value of Google’s core advertising business. In this two-pronged approach, Google is closely mirroring what Microsoft is doing with Windows and its Surface device line.
All the major software and services firms, it seems, have grown conscious of the synergistic advantages of having control over the devices running their wares. Amazon is now an important player in home automation — every smart thermostat or energy metering provider in the UK was on hand for the European launch of the Echo last month — precisely because it was able to tie its smart technology down with physical products. Google is pursuing exactly the same anchoring effects by developing its own phones and other hardware, including the Echo-rivaling Google Home speaker. Even while Google’s ecosystem strength might reside in the proverbial cloud, it’s these physical devices that give expression to it and that people interact with directly.
No more Nexus, it’s all “made by Google” from here on out
Hardware without software is meaningless, we all know that. But the new recognition that seems to be emerging in Mountain View and elsewhere is that software without control of the hardware can be just as fruitless an endeavor. After witnessing Android’s uneven progress through the years, and trying to nudge it straight through the Nexus program and a variety of behind-the-scenes maneuvers, Google looks set to today return to the classic approach of “if you want something done right, do it yourself.”