Google shocked everyone watching the I/O Conference 2022 this week, as a full lineup of Pixel devices coming over the next year was revealed at the mostly hardware-free dev event. While I’m excited to see what a fully realized Pixel ecosystem looks like, I can’t help but wonder what impact it might have on the wider Android market.
Google has been in the hardware business for quite some time now, over a decade if you count the Nexus line which debuted in January 2010. However, things accelerated when it bought Motorola and Nest in 2011 and 2014, respectively. Although the first one didn’t go as many probably hoped, Rick Osterloh, Google’s Senior Vice President of Devices and Services, former President and COO of Motorola, has been an integral part of the effort to hardware company.
Between Pixel phones, Pixel Buds, and the Nest family of products, you could say Google is in over its head, but with the addition of a Pixel Watch and Pixel Tablet next year, it leap into the depths. The question is whether Google will manage a graceful dive that doesn’t cause too many waves in the larger Android ecosystem or a complete cannonball.
Here’s a look at what Google has planned and what it could mean for Android.
Experience the power of a fully armed and operational Pixel ecosystem
When Google launched the original Pixel in 2016, it was very well received by critics, but not exactly a commercial success. It’s been a constant 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 was already outselling the Pixel 4 and Pixel 5 combined.
The thing is, the Pixel has never been a significant threat to the market share of other Android makers like Samsung or Motorola. So some of the Pixel-exclusive features that Google offers with its in-house phones, such as the now sadly gone free unlimited photo and video storageand more recently, awesome 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 change. Currently, even the most diehard Pixel fan can only rely on the brand to meet their phone and headphone needs. If they were looking for a tablet or a smartwatch, they had to look elsewhere. This, in turn, opens up the option for that buyer to look at the rest of the other manufacturer’s lineup, 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 away while making sure you always have what you need, was one of the central themes of the Pixel announcements during the keynote. opening, 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 product ecosystem that works best when a user is fully purchased. Samsung has certainly been working towards the same goal across its entire range, but while Samsung is working closely with Google, it’s ultimately not entirely in control of its software destiny.
Google has been pushing this idea since at least 2019 and it’s appeared in software like Fast Pair which enables quick and easy connections between devices without complications. And notably it’s not something that Google limits to its own products; Fast Pair is available for everyone. However, if Google hits its release dates, it will have a fully functioning ecosystem by the end of 2023. Plus, it might retain some of the best integrations to create a Googlefied version of this walled garden utopia that fans of Apple love.
Discussions of “better together” and the focus on creating a ubiquitous network of devices for users all came to the top of the presentation’s section on Google 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 I/O 2021 moment.
Be careful not to choke on your aspirations
It’s unfortunate that I landed on two dark side quotes, but I’m sticking with it. While there’s a chance that Google’s hardware ecosystem could alienate some Android makers, there are crucial reasons why I don’t think it’s ultimately a major concern, even if Google’s new products met with great commercial success.
The main reason is that it’s not in Google’s best interest. Google is first and foremost an advertising company. It gets far more out of the billions of non-Pixel devices running Android than it could hope for from the most successful projections for the Pixel ecosystem panacea I painted above. This is essentially the same reason why I find most claims about Google compromising user privacy to be dishonest, as it would fundamentally destroy Google’s entire business model if it broke trust with its users.
So, this is about Google taking its Android bullet and going home, but looking at the other side of the coin, what would other Android makers turn to? We’ve seen efforts by Samsung, Huawei and others to create their own operating system and they’ve universally failed. If Samsung can’t handle it, it’s safe to say that none of the other Android makers have the power to do so. Given that it becomes hard to imagine what Google would have to do to force any, let alone all, of the other Android makers to try and move elsewhere.
Going back to the original question I posed with the title, could the Pixel ecosystem be the death of Android as we know it? Yes, but not in the sense that it will kill him, but rather fundamentally change him. Hopefully Google’s hardware ecosystem will help it strengthen some of the areas of Android that have historically been weak, tablets and wearables, and the underlying software that makes Pixel devices “better together.” extends to Android rather than benefiting Google alone. If Google can pull this off, it will make the next few years in the mobile world that much more interesting.