Did the Competition Bring the Pixel Down to its Level?
The rise of the spec sheet
“Never argue with stupid people. They will drag you down to their level. And then beat you with experience.”
That quote (attributed to Mark Twain) was running through my mind as I sat through the launch of the Pixel 2 a few days ago. For, when the dust had finally settled, it almost seemed as if Google had gone from being this mystical master of magical software and ubiquitous search to just another smartphone manufacturer. The Pixel launch was pretty much par for the course for any high-end smartphone launch, with the accent being more on design and hardware rather than the experience actually. Yes, there were some special features discussed, but at the end of the day, the new Pixels were really all about design and innards. Oh and groans about their prices.
Which is a far cry from the early days of Google’s Android flagships, when the stress was on the software – the pure, stock Android experience, with assured updates. No, none of those phones were pipsqueaks in terms of hardware, but rare indeed was the person who purchased a Nexus device for the hardware. There were always – always, always – devices with comparable and even better hardware and design around. Nay, the Nexus stood for something more – it was the benchmark Android experience for many. No bloatware, a generally unobtrusive but compact design (the Nexus 4 was an exception with its glitter-y back) and a buttery smooth Android experience for at least two years were the pillars of the Nexus experience.
The Pixel has now been a rather contrary beast (or beauty, if you like those backs) in both its editions. No, no one expected cutting edge design – the Nexus 5 which was perhaps the most popular Google device of them all was a relatively plain customer with a plastic body and slightly boxy sides. But right through the presentation, there was a section of the audience that kept waiting for that special “something” – heck, even last year there had been that Google Assistant moment. Not this time. Instead, the audience was walked through a lot of…well, technology.It was impressive, but there was nothing that one could call magical. Hell, the new Pixels were not even the first to come with Android O out of the box (Sony stole that particular thunder).
Of course, being distinct in this smartphone-crazy modern world is tough. Stock Android might have been a big deal half a decade ago, but ever since Motorola made its return, it is no longer a Nexus/Pixel preserve. In fact, at the time of writing, one could get stock Android on devices from Nokia, Motorola, Lenovo, BlackBerry and even Xiaomi.The irony, however, is that the Pixels did not also exactly scorch the turf in the hardware or design departments – there was nothing in there that really hit home in a big way. Yes, there was a lot of talk about the new camera, but truth be told, we are reaching a stage where, in normal lighting conditions, many phones with much lower price tags hold their own with a degree of comfort.
Cue that quote from Mark Twain. It was almost as if all the competing brands had forced Google to abandon the “Google experience” high horse, and get down and start fighting in the spec sheet mud. There is no harm in doing that indeed, but the peril that confronts Google here is that it is going up against folks who are used to this sort of warfare. Apple in the Jobs era (albeit less so today) doggedly avoided getting into spec wars. No, contrary to what many might believe, the reason was not because of the Cupertino giant’s focus on experience (although that too is a factor), but something much more simple: in the rapidly changing world of technology, specs can be copied and improved. Even today, Apple does not bother talking about the RAM or the size of the batteries in the iPhone – they are figures that can be bettered and battered.
And that is the biggest headache that will confront the new Pixels, just as it did their predecessor – eccentric design apart, what on earth do they have that is very different from the competition? DxO scores are great for slides but you can ask HTC as to the impact they have on consumers, especially when you have a super aggressive competition hyping up its own cameras. Regrettably the same can be said for regular Android updates – in spite of the increased popularity and availability of Stock Android, not too many consumers seem affected by delayed updates. And even in the spec space, we have already seen our share of “OnePlus 5 has more RAM, dual cameras and a UI similar to stock Android at a much lower price,” and “Samsung S8 and Galaxy Note are cheaper” comments.
We are not daring to presume that we know better than the Search giant, but perhaps it is time that Google actually thought in terms of what it is trying to say with the Pixel: that Android works well with great hardware? Thanks to LG, Samsung, Sony, and HTC, we already know that. That you need to pay a premium for a premium experience? Well, thanks to OnePlus, Moto and Xiaomi, we know that is not really true. Is that android at its best on great hardware? We have two words in answer: Moto G. And well, while the Nexus 4, 5 and 5X did prove that you could get the pure Android experience with good hardware at a remarkably affordable price, we think that the “value for money” ship has long since sailed from the Googleplex (actually, the first sign that things were changing in that regard was the Nexus 6).
And one of the headaches of not fighting on price is that everything – every single thing – that you offer gets analyzed even more heavily. Small wonder that our editor Raju PP refers to a relatively low price as a “Suraksha kawach” (protective armor). No matter what accusation you level at a product that has a lower than expected price, its supporters can point at the price tag and get away with it. The Nexus 5 for instance, had an exceptionally bad loudspeaker, but complaints about it were muted because the entire package did not cost as much. The new Pixels do not have that luxury, thanks ironically to a rather luxurious price. Which means they will be fighting not on a unique experience but instead on those Android flagship favorites – design and specs. Against rivals who are used to being there.
Welcome to the spec wrestling arena, Google.