Pixel and Pixel XL: Google Declares War on Samsung and Apple

By James O Malley on at

It’s war - that’s the message from Google this evening as it has torn apart the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact it signed with Samsung, and has sent its troops on a blitzkrieg towards not just Cupertino - but South Korea.

The Google Pixel and Pixel XL are Google’s attempt to reposition its own in-house devices as premium machines that are able to go toe-to-toe with Apple’s iPhone 7 at the very top of the smartphone market. With Pixel, unlike previous devices, Google has designed everything - include the industrial design. And probably not coincidentally, it doesn’t look wildly different from the iPhone.

But what’s significant with the Pixel isn't just what they have designed - but how they have designed it. This doesn’t appear to be a hobbyist project, like the Nexus line has previously been treated. This is Google attempting to wrest control of the Android experience from the companies it had previously called its friends. Previously, Google was happy to let Android ride on the back of the likes of Samsung, HTC and LG. According to Bloomberg’s insider piece looking at the new device, the company has been building direct relationships with carriers and component suppliers - and it has even designed the accessories itself. It is trying to cut out the middlemen.

Google also announced that it is taking control of device updates. At the moment Android’s biggest flaw is that it is hugely fragmented across a number of different versions - making the platform harder to develop for. This is because pushing out Android updates has relied on the cooperation of phone manufacturers and networks. This changes with the Pixel though, as it will download and install updates automatically. Ensuring that all Pixel users will be running the latest software, and tightly locked into Google.

With the Pixel, it wants deeper and closer control of the Android experience the end user gets to see. Forget TouchWiz UI and whatever else Samsung throws on top of Android’s core experience - Google wants an iron grip similar to that Apple has over the way the iPhone looks and feels. It wants you to buy your next Android phone direct from Google.

Power Politics

What’s remarkable is that Google is able to make this power play, and there is relatively little the biggest loser from this new assault - Samsung - can do to stop it.

8 years ago Google was able to colonise the mobile industry by offering a platform to a wide range of third party developers. Today, Android has an 86% market share, and its nearest non-Apple competitor, Windows Phone, is on only 0.6% of phones. And an entire app ecosystem has developed around the platform. Android was Google's cadre of sleeper agents, who are now being activated.

And now that Google has decided to turn its guns on its Android partners, there’s nowhere else its competitors can turn: They have sown the seeds of their own destruction. Even though the Pixel and Pixel XL are a hearty “screw you” to the Galaxies S7 and Note 7, Samsung is still going to have to use Google’s operating system. The same goes for LG, HTC and every other Android manufacturer.

You might think that Samsung has a back-up plan. The company has toyed with its own Tizen OS on a tiny number of handsets, but there’s no way it could switch or compete with the Google behemoth - because ultimately users are locked into to Android and Google Play if they want to keep their apps and content. And developers are locked in too - because Android is where the largest pool of users are.

This lock-in is further, umm, locked in, by some of the software features on the new phone: With Google’s Siri-like Assistant baked into the phone’s core, it will constantly learn more about us - meaning that Google’s recommendations and suggestions are always going to be smarter than whatever Samsung could come up with. Why would you ever switch away?

Samsung Losing Sleep?

Prior to this evening’s “Made by Google” event, Google executives had claimed that this evening’s presentation would be “historic” - and they might be right. While it might not be obvious now, this could be Google firing the starting gun on the most significant shake-up in the mobile industry since Android followed the iPhone and changed everything.

The war with Apple has been raging for several years now - and the Pixel is definitely an attempt at taking on Tim Cook’s army. But this is also the opening up of another front. And the first salvos of a war against Samsung are being fired. Don’t expect things to change overnight - Samsung will still be reliably pumping out Galaxies for a few years yet. But don’t be surprised if one day, you wake up and suddenly Google’s empire is even larger and Samsung is yesterday's news.