I’ve been mulling over the Google Pixel 3 launch these past few days and one thing struck me more than anything else. Google looks less like the Google of old (who made Nexus phones, for example) and now looks much closer to its big rivals, Amazon and Apple.
No, I’m not talking about the cliche presentation phrases, over-reliance on pop music videos, and the use of celebrity feature endorsements — although those are all terribly irritating imitations too. Google’s hardware is expensive and sleek (just look at that overpriced Pixel Slate Pen), but the company is finally coalescing around its core software services to offer this “Google experience,” much like Apple and Amazon.
The Pixel 3 launch event was as much about pushing subscription services as it was about pitching new hardware. Google Maps, Photos, and even YouTube have always been a pre-installed and useful extra part of Android, but they’ve never been a core selling point for a product. This time, Google didn’t even really mention Android during the presentation, but its subscription apps came up a lot. Not just for the Pixel 3 but across the Pixel Slate and Home Hub too. The event was an ecosystem pitch.
Buy a Google product today and you'll be hooked into the ecosystem long-term.
YouTube TV and Premium bundled in with the new Slate and Home Hub, and the continuation of two-year unlimited photo uploads for Pixel customers are pretty good value, but it’s also a stepping stone to increase the subscriber base of these platforms longterm. The Home Hub perhaps embodies this move the best, using YouTube for its most useful recipe and music functions, and introducing the Home View dashboard for Nest branded smart home products. It’s all about linking a hardware purchase to another product or subscription purchase in the future.
Amazon has a very similar approach, albeit at a cheaper price point. You buy a Kindle, Fire TV, or Amazon Echo and the expectation is that you’ll eventually subscribe to Amazon Music, Movies, Cloud Drive, or broader Prime services. This web of integration has even spread over as far as Twitch. Despite its premium hardware price tags, Apple is selling a wider ecosystem of software products and subscription services too. Overpriced wireless headphones and expensive dongles are a given, but Apple Music, TV, and iCloud are all considered part of the Apple experience too.
Perhaps in the modern hyper-competitive hardware market, software and subscription-based products are one of the few highly profitable section of the market left. Apple has been making plenty of money from app and subscription sales in the past few years and Microsoft too has gradually switched over to a focus on a broader platform over individual products.
The race for the smart home makes the ecosystem game paramount. Familiar voice assistants and cross-platform services are often the deciding factors when picking a platform. Part of the reason Google managed to close the gap on Amazon’s early lead is that consumers use Google Assistant on their phone rather than Alexa. With Maps, YouTube, Photos, Nest, and more functionality shared across platforms, the choice for Android users seems obvious.
Google hasn't talked Pixel sales, and the emphasis on premium services could be a sign that it needs to extract more revenue from a smaller consumer base.
Google’s vision for its products and technologies is clearly growing distinct from Android’s original purpose, yet the operating system is still key for most of the industry’s smartphone, smartwatch, and smart home products. This could lead to trouble. Samsung is never going to embrace Nest on behalf of Google over its SmartThings platform, for example, and there’s already clearly tension between Assistant and Bixby. So where does this leave the Android/partner relationship going forward?
We appear closer than ever to a fork in the road. Android 9.0 Pie represents the closest melding yet between Google Assistant and the Android operating system. Assistant is Google’s key technology unifying all of its and many third-party products. However, it’s unclear how keen some of Android’s larger partners are on this being a core part of their products too, especially now that Google is using Assistant as a hook into its wider product portfolio. Also, how much Google do we as consumers really want in our Android products?
I asked this question shortly after the presentation — does the Pixel 3 showcase the best of Android or the best of Google? I think it’s an important distinction. Google seems to be shifting from simple OS curator to an Amazon or Apple-eqsue ecosystem player.