Google’s new Pixel smartphone doesn’t really have much to justify its premium price on the hardware side. It has the “best smartphone camera ever” perhaps (that’s still yet to be officially determined, other than by DxOMark), there are some hardware optimizations, and the phone sports the super-new and super-fast Snapdragon 821. But other than that, Google is relying mostly on software to set this phone apart from the crowd. That’s fine by me, except for the fact that most of the software features Google is touting are only artificially exclusive to the Pixel.
One of the most obvious is Assistant, Google’s AI-powered evolution of Google Now that the Mountain View company is putting in a lot of its new products. It’s built-in to Allo, it’s the central interface for Google Home, and of course, it’s front-and-center with a new home button on the Pixel phones. What frustrates me, though, is that there’s not really any reason other than helping push the Pixel out the door to hold it back from last year’s Nexus phones. Google, the company that has long pioneered Android as “open,” is closing some things off…
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This reminds me a lot of the launch of Siri on the iPhone 4S, which Apple famously touted as the big selling point of the phone — while holding the feature back from software updates to the iPhone 4. It was purely a software feature, and Apple used it as the central selling point. Perhaps this isn’t the best comparison, though, because the performance difference between iPhone 4 and 4S was a lot more substantial than, let’s say, the Nexus 6P and the Pixel XL. Apple might have had some justification for that decision.
Google also has some justification, but it really comes only in the form of exclusivity and marketing. As our own Ben Schoon even admitted himself, a big reason he jumped on the Pixel bandwagon is because it just has lots of software exclusives that are hard to pass up. Assistant is the big one, but the Pixel and Pixel XL also offer 24/7 customer care, a lot of Android 7.1 features, the Pixel Launcher, and unlimited full quality photo and video backup with Google Photos. Some of these will eventually make their way to some of the newer Nexus devices, but for now, Google is using them to get you to spend $650+ on a phone that actually leaves a decent amount to be desired in the hardware department. The physical design isn’t exactly groundbreaking, there’s no waterproofing, there’s no OIS, there’s only one bottom-firing speaker…
Perhaps the other justification Google has for limiting Assistant’s launch on older Nexus devices for the time being is to give it — and Google — a chance to learn some more and iron out some kinks before being pushed out to the “masses” (I put that in quotes because the number of people using Nexus devices is insanely small compared to the entire smartphone market). But I don’t really buy that, because Google already released Assistant publicly in the form of Allo. And anyone on any device — including iPhone — can download it and try it out right now.
Rather, I think that Google wants its hardcore Nexus fanbase to help it promote the Pixel and get some sales moving out the gate. Honestly, if Google had released (or even directly promised) the Assistant in a software update — or even a developer preview — for the Nexus 6P and 5X, how many of Google’s most loyal fans who bought a Nexus last year would skip out on the Pixel and Pixel XL for now (or even entirely)? I think the number would be pretty decent.
But it’s still annoying to me. Google has long trumpeted Android as an open platform and has never used software exclusivity to sell its hardware like this before. It’s a very Apple-like move, and only in the worst way. Google seems to be waking up to the fact that top-to-bottom control of its software and hardware will be the only way it can produce phones that have the “fit and finish” to compete well with the iPhone (although we aren’t really seeing the benefits of this with the Pixel, yet), but unfortunately they’re throwing long-time Nexus fans and loyalists under the bus in the process.
Other than pushing sales of the Pixel, there’s no reason the Nexus 6P can’t have Assistant today. This has to be artificial for the most part, because even Google itself says that they want to allow 3rd-parties to put the Assistant on anything. “We imagine a future where the assistant will be able to help from any context and from any kind of device,” the company said at its event earlier this week. They even mentioned the eventual possibility that Assistant could run on a Raspberry Pi.
And one of our anonymous tipsters (if you’re reading this, feel free to send us an anonymous encrypted email, we’d really love to chat), who has told us some things that ended up confirmed, also suggests that this is the case. We’re hearing from said tipster that internal developer Nexus devices have the Assistant running “perfectly” (The Verge also mentioned it running on the Nexus 6P in a lengthy feature). Further, this person confirms the obvious, saying that Google is holding it back for a some amount of time to give Pixel the exclusive. The Android 7.1 change log that Android Police obtained, however, clearly distinguishes which features are Pixel-exclusive. The developer preview for Android 7.1 is said to be coming at least to the 6P, 5X, and Pixel C, by the end of the year.
Here’s what Google told us on the matter:
There will be certain features — such as the Google Assistant — that will be unique to Pixel before we make a decision to offer it up to the rest of the ecosystem. With some of these features currently unique to Pixel, we’re carefully experimenting with these changes to assess user reaction and feedback.
So when and which devices in Google’s portfolio will get the Assistant is entirely up in the air for the moment. Which, I don’t know about you, is probably a sign of things to come. It’s clear that the Pixel line is going to basically have its own fork of Android (which, actually, was true of the Nexus phones as well considering they didn’t run technically pure “stock” AOSP). What’s confusing is that we’ve now heard of a couple cases where Google is considering Nexus-like devices. The Huawei tablet that we’ve (and Evan Blass, and some others) heard about is one of them (which likely won’t be Pixel-branded, as Huawei refused to let Google remove its branding for the Pixel), but Android Police also noted that Huawei is being “solicited by Google” to make a mid-range smartphone as well for launch next year.
Assistant is probably just the first of many features that make up the “more opinionated” exclusives of the Pixel line, and while it’s exciting that Google is taking the bull by the horns and trying to deliver a unique and compelling top-to-bottom smartphone package, it’s also going to be unfortunate for those that want to stick with Android but would perhaps prefer hardware from other companies (or in this case, would like to stick with Google’s hardware from last year for a while).