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Google’s big hardware moment is also its biggest test
Few would argue Android got off to a slow start. Back in 2008, it was the eagerly anticipatedGoogle mobile platform that was supposed to take on the barely year-old Apple iPhone and venerable RIM (BlackBerry).
The firstAndroid phone, theHTC-builtG1, was unusual and distinctive. It even had a dedicated, physical search button ( so Google), but it didn’t inspire or sell very well. For a long time, Android appeared to have a failure-to-launch problem.Motorola arguably could be credited with rescuing Android from obscurity. Eventually, the Android mantle was passed from Motorola toSamsung and success built upon success until the platform owned a stunning majority of the global market.
SEE ALSO: Google's big hardware event: What to expect
So, yes, Android is a global brand. But that initial announcement was not a shot heard around the world. It was a small seed that grew into the towering tree that is Google’s mobile platform.
Google isn't planting a seed on Tuesday. Its fall hardware unveiling will be more, it hopes, like dropping a Star Trek II -style Genesis Effect bomb on a barren planet: terra-forming it instantly with millions of Google hardware converts. Am I exaggerating? A little. But check out this bold promise:
We announced the 1st version of Android 8 years ago today. I have a feeling 8 years from now we'll be talking about Oct 4, 2016.
— Hiroshi Lockheimer (@lockheimer) September 24, 2016
A memorable day means that Google has to do more than just officially launchall the hardware they introduced last summer. It has to do a hard reset, unveil mobile surprises and brand-new handsets that finally do what the G1 couldn’t do nearly a decade ago: position Google as a handset manufacturer equal to Apple.
It's the right time for Google to do something bold and, maybe, a little crazy. The search giant has, after all, only partial control of the Android narrative. When most people think of a leading Android smartphone they think aboutSamsung and thenLG and then maybe HTC. Motorola is still in there, too, though it doesn’t hold the same position it once did. Heck, now people can includeBlackBerry and Android in the same thought.
It's the right time for Google to do something bold and, maybe, a little crazy.
None of these Android partners can be trusted to run 100% stock Android, though they’ve come much closer in recent years. Carrier partners are not much more helpful, stuffing handsets with their own custom software and still delivering Android updates on their own schedules, not Google’s.
Google will, if the steady stream of leaks we’ve been fed for the last few weeks hold true, unveil at least two new smartphones on Tuesday. Which is exactly what Google did last year. It also introduced a newPixel C tablet.
“The last two were nice phones with solid features and with direct lines to upgraded latest software, but nowhere near an iPhone 6s Plus,” said Patrick Moorhead, president of Moor Insights & Strategy.
TheNexus 6P and5X were very good phones, but they quickly slipped from the public consciousness, almost as fast as we forgot thePixel C. A quarter for anyone who can deliver of photo of one of those things in the wild.
Google can’t expect to make waves when it's paddling with the same oars. Delivering yet another set of Nexus phones designed more to influence Android partners than to actually move the market won’t be enough.
It feels like it's time for Google to have itsMicrosoft Surface moment: blow away (and maybe piss off) partners by designing, building and aggressively selling its own hardware. Some see this as a way forward for Google.
Google’s big hardware moment is also its biggest test
The Google Pixel C sported a unique design where the tablet attaches to the detachable keyboard via strong magnets.
Image: Jhila Farzaneh/Mashable
“Making their own hardware is a way to help them gain back control of Android. Although it is a risky move, if they get strong carrier support and more importantly can guarantee that these products will always have the most current OS on them, then it could go a long way toward giving them a better position against Apple and other Android smartphone vendors,” said Tim Bajarin, President of Creative strategies.
Bajarin thinks Google has a big opportunity here. They’re certainly going to have the attention to do something big.
“It is a major hardware event where Google positions themselves as a major player like Microsoft has done with their Surface products,” said Bajarin.
Google, obviously, does make and sell some of its own hardware. But they’ve been wildly inconsistent. For everyChromecast (a $35 success — relatively — from day one) there’s been a dumped-on-the-roadNexus Q.
However, up until now, Google has never married hardware and software in a way that effectively illustrates the power of their search engine, vast data stores and growing expertise in Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning.
Google Home, the smart speaker and digital assistant, could be that product. In fact, it could be the hardware game-changer Google desperately needs. Moorhead thinks Home represents a strong opportunity.
Imagine “Google Home working spectacularly with their Pixel- or Nexus-brand phone — if they’ve optimized the microphones to work perfectly and it does things that Alexa and Siri can’t do and does it a lot better,” said Moorhead.
However, that kind of integration is difficult to achieve. And Moorhead worries Google may not be able to deliver a flawless and consistent experience from the living room to the Nexus or Pixel Phone.
Who are you?
With Cardboard, Chromecast and even Google-branded Wi-Fi, there could be more than half-a dozen hardware announcements on Tuesday. Some experts, though, still don’t believe hardware is the goal.
“Google is not turning into a hardware business,” said Forrester Research VP and Principal Analyst Thomas Husson. He told me Google simply wants to showcase its information access across a wide variety of connected devices.
“Search is increasingly taking place in many more places, via many more devices and through new interfaces — with a growing number of voice and visual requests. To stay relevant for marketers in the long run, the Google Assistant is likely to be the driving force behind Google’s hardware moves.”
What’s in a name
But why would Google introduce so many different pieces of hardware? Do its Android partners really need that much guidance? There are, I think, indications that Google has bigger plans for these gadgets.
A look at the massive Google Pixel phone leak from Monday morning offers an interesting glimpse of how Google may want us all to think about their handsets (and hardware, in general) in the future. The image says “Introducing Pixel, Phone by Google.” "Introducing Pixel" is relatively small and “Phone by Google” is larger and more prominent. Does Google want us to start saying something like “I love my Google Phone?”
There would be few branding moves bigger than introducing “The Google Phone,” though, some are not convinced.
Pixel likely to be the standard bearer for “Google Phones” going forward.
“I don’t know if they want to copy Apple and put their whole company name on it,” said brand expert, CEO and Founder of The Branding Clinic Kathleen Carroll, adding, “Companies use other names to protect themselves in case it doesn’t go well [and] to keep parent’s brand equity very strong.”
Which means Pixel is still the more likely standard bearer for “Google Phones” going forward.
Google first used “Pixel” in 2013 when the company unveiled theChromebook Pixel. Pixel was then less a brand name than an indication of the laptop’s rather remarkable screen resolution for the time (239 pixels per inch).
If Pixel does become the go-forward brand for its new line of flagship Android phones, the switch makes sense, said Carroll, especially if Google is bringing “revolutionary change.”
In fact, keeping the Nexus brand for technology that leapfrogs the competition would be, Carroll noted, a mistake. “Nexus has been out long enough and enough people are uninterested or are rejectors that [Google does] need a new name to get excitement and interest in category,” she told me.
Google hasn’t built up a lot of faith in its brand-management expertise. With the exception of Android, they still tend to introduce brands and then drop or ignore them. “Look at the Nexus brand,” said Patrick Moorhead. “It started with a certain promise and changed. Not disciplined brand management.”
When I asked Moorhead, Carroll and others about the possibilities of Google taking firmer control of “Android” as a brand name for their handsets, most thought that would be a mistake.
Calling the new phones Google Pixel, though, won’t necessarily solve all of Google’s device branding problems, but it could bring it into line with Google Home, Google Chromecast and Google Pixel C.
Google is Google
So let’s imagine that Google’s Pixel phones manage to raise the bar on photography, battery life, screen resolution and even affordability. They demonstrate a Google ecosystem of mobile and home devices that use the smartly rebranded Google Assistant as connective tissue, which follows you from the office, to the road to the home and back out again.
It’s finally Google’s moment to prove that, as Bajarin put it to me, its hardware business “is not a hobby.”
In 90 intense and thrilling minutes, Google will finally deliver a unified vision for its software and hardware. It will feel, essentially, like an Apple event.
And more importantly, the excitement of the event will, finally, be matched by some follow-through.
This could happen.
On the other hand, Google’s event track record is terrible. In the last five years, there’s be exactly one break-out moment: When Google co-founderSergey Brin (an arguably more dynamic figure than the brilliant but dull Google CEO Sundar Picahi) stunned a Google I/O audience by usingparachute jumpers to introduced Google Glass (they actually wore the headsets while jumping out of an airplane). Ultimately, this perfectly illustrated everything that’s wrong with Google’s hardware approach. They were building cool gadgets for nerds, instead of useful, beautiful consumer electronics for everyday people.
That moment probably worked because we were truly surprised. There were no expectations (except for the sky-high ones that existed right after the Google Glass reveal).
By contrast, less than 24 hours from what could be Google’s most important unveiling in eight years, expectations are high and rising. “[They] set the expectations that they’re going to swing everyone around the room,” said Moorhead. “I feel like Google is setting themselves up for either a colossal failure or disappointment.”
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