LAST Tuesday’s Google hardware reveal, though widely heralded by its cheerleaders as revolutionary, was really just a sad archetype of Google’s decade-long obsession with replacing Apple.
As noted by Daniel Eran Dilger in AppleInsider, the Pixel XL “costs the same as Apple’s iPhone 7 Plus but is half as fast, lacks Optical Image Stabilization, a telephoto lens, weather resistance, support for wide color gamut and stereo speakers.” The only things it has that the iPhone doesn’t are unlimited free cloud photo storage (iCloud gives you 5GB free, but you can pay $1/month for 50GB, or $3/month for 200GB), and a built-in analog headphone jack (iPhone includes a Lightning-to-analog adapter, and EarPods that plug directly to Lightning with no adapter needed). Why will consumers flock to a phone that costs just as much as an iPhone, yet features so much less (never mind the app situation)? We didn’t hear an answer to that from Google.
Dilger also points out that although the Android people like to pretend it’s the first time, this is actually Google’s fourth attempt to sell Google-branded handsets (G1, Nexus, Moto X, and now Pixel). And Google has had other hardware ventures that quickly flopped, for example, the modular Ara smartphones (hyped for years, then completely cancelled just a few weeks ago), and Nexus Q, the spherical, media streaming device that was terminated about a month after hitting the market. The new products announced on October 4th haven’t been released yet, so who knows what will happen — but there’s hardly anything new or revolutionary about Google coming out with yet more officially Google-specced hardware in the hopes that this time, those products will take off like rockets.
The event itself was stunningly anemic. Take a look, and try to imagine Apple getting away with a delivery like this. Apple’s detractors like to say that Tim Cook is no Steve Jobs when it comes to charismatic presentation — but the key speakers at this function make Cook look like a seasoned pro. The venue and audience were remarkably small, and strangely unreceptive: When the guy launching Pixel made an anti-iPhone barb about camera bumps, and paused for audience laughter, he was met with dead silence, which he then tried to cover with his own, uncertain snicker.
The Pixel’s camera was hyped as the best ever in a smartphone, while neglecting to mention that the already-released iPhone 7 and 7 Plus weren’t included in that test — but, of course, the unreleased Pixel was. (This at the same time that the presenters had no problem comparing Pixel to iPhone when it came to camera bumps and analog jacks.)
The hardware announcements rounded out with me-too answers to eero and the Echo, plus a niced-up, plastic-and-cloth version of Google cardboard (slip your smartphone into a pair of goggle-like glasses to make a cheap VR system) — but which works only with the Pixel phone. (And costs only $80.)
The show led off with heavy promotion of the hot, new, anti-Apple meme: We’re all headed toward an AI-first, not-device-first world (in which Google can and probably will dominate Apple). This craze is uncritically endorsed by the same sort of people who for many years pushed “Apple will get commoditized out of its markets,” until that certitude started looking so tired and clueless that any remotely plausible, new, Apple’s-going-down theory was immediately preferable. This message would’ve been a lot more convincing if it had taken up the majority of the presentation, followed with a $200 phone that, yes, isn’t as good as an iPhone, but it’s much cheaper, and what does it really matter how good the phone is, when we’re all going to be living in an AI-first world anyway? That would have been at least consistent. But no, instead, we got a phone that’s trying very hard to be as good as Apple’s top-of-the-line iPhone — while successfully duplicating mainly the price. Google’s whole presentation belied the AI-first-not-device-first theme.
A lot of what they presented is future-oriented, e.g. fully synthesized speech. Sounds great, but it’s not a shipping product, and we don’t know what Apple’s working on, because Apple doesn’t hype its private roadmap in public presentations. Comparing Google’s future plans to Apple’s shipping products certainly makes Google look superior — but also backfires by discouraging people from buying Apple’s competitors’ shipping products today.
To really understand how misguided this whole event was, go to apple.com and take a look at all the gorgeous product imagery and animated, learn-more links. Then go to google.com and what do you see? What you’ve always seen there: a simple search engine. People go to Google to search the web, not to learn about cool, Apple-style hardware.
You have to go to madeby.google.com (not linked at all from google.com that I could see!) to find Google’s extremely obvious, shameless copy of apple.com. It looks just like one of those Microsoft stores trying to supplant Apple’s phenomenally successful retail operation: If we build something that looks about the same, people will stop getting stuff from Apple, and start getting it from us! It’s been the haggard delusion of many major tech companies for at least the past fifteen years, with Google a prominent member. Google’s whole attitude about this seems to be: We must drive Apple out of hardware dominance. Why? Because we can! And we know we can, because Windows did it to the Mac in the ’80s, right? (Not exactly.) And all those people who use iPhones? They don’t really want to keep buying Apple products; they’re just waiting for the right non-Apple phone to appear, so they can say bye-bye to Apple for good!
Google’s Mountain View headquarters may indeed be populated with guys who think that way, but the society outside of that campus most definitely is not. In the real world, when a revolutionary product comes along (think iPhone in 2007), we all know it, because it’s radically different and better than the best stuff we had yesterday. Google’s October 4th hardware presentation wasn’t even revolutionary in terms of marking a new strategy for Google.
Update 2017.10.04 — Although the second annual “Made By Google” event is noticeably improved in overall quality compared to the first one, still, pretty much everything I said a year ago applies today. The big question is, how has it been going?
Rick Osterloh, the main speaker, bragged about sales of video dongles and routers, but then seconds later glaringly avoided any talk of Pixel phone sales, instead finding other ways to praise that product:
And Pixel had a great year. I just wish we had a few more of them to go around, but user satisfaction among Pixel owners is among the highest of any Google product ever. Industry analysts and the media gave Pixel rave reviews too. Our performance scores led the industry. And Pixel had the best and top-rated smartphone camera. We’re really proud of how well the Pixel did, for our first-generation smartphone in such a competitive space.
I’m not sure what exactly Osterloh is proud of, but in mid-June Ars Technica ran a story claiming that per the Google Play Store’s own internal metrics, Pixel couldn’t have sold more than a million units. A million in eight months puts it at far less than 1% of iPhone sales in the same period — very similar sales territory as Windows Phone just before Microsoft shut it down. And “performance scores?” Apple’s mobile processors are much faster than those used in any non-Apple phone.
Osterloh (as well as other speakers) bubbled about how Google’s just getting started on this stuff:
This is what it means to design hardware from the inside out. It’s this combination of AI, software, and hardware, working together, that provides a helpful experience for our users. And that’s where the big leaps forward are gonna happen in the next ten years. We’re still in the early days for our hardware line, but we know what it takes to build great products in a crowded field. We weren’t first with many of our successful products.
If your product isn’t first, then it needs to be radically better than what’s already out there. That’s what Google search was in 1998. That’s what iPhone was in 2007. That’s not what Pixel is today. And pretty much every product Google showed in this event (and there were many) is precious little more than a shameless, me-too copy of something from Apple or eero.
This event feels very much like Microsoft events from the Steve Ballmer 2000s: It would’ve been really great in an alternate universe where Apple, eero, and a few other companies just didn’t exist, and the Google guys thought up all this stuff on their own. In the 2000s, Microsoft was making immense billions from Windows/Office licensing (still today most of their revenue), and they blew incredible amounts of that money trying to recreate/rebrand Apple’s successful products as if Microsoft had invented them first. With Ballmer finally given the boot, Microsoft more recently seems to have at least partially woken up from this very expensive daydream. Google, however, is deep in the throes of it, and seems perfectly content to spend incredible amounts of its web-search profits on this fantasy.
It couldn’t be clearer that Google very much wants to replicate Apple’s successes. But what it’s actually replicating is Microsoft’s failures.