At its heart, Google is a software company. It made its fortune giving people the results to what they were searching for. It was a simple enough premise at the turn of the digital age, as increasing number of people were getting access to the internet by the day- they needed a search engine to compile and give them the relevant links to sites. Google did it better than anyone else- to the point where no one else could compete. And in the sea of change we have observed over the past 2 decades in the tech world (which is like 3 lifetimes in human years!), this has remained the one constant.
No one can compete with Google when it comes to search, and no one even tries. People don’t say ‘please look that up on the search engine of your choice’ when 2 words can convey the forthcoming action with equal accuracy- ‘Google it’. All of Google’s biggest successes are similarly monopolistic. There is no real alternative to YouTube for content creators. Google maps is far too ahead of the curve to be challenged. Even Apple had to apologize to its users for replacing it with their own maps app in 2013, duly switching back to Google and still sticking by it. Android forms a duopoly along with iOS in the mobile operating system market. Chrome is the most used browser to access the internet, by a large margin. Gmail is the most used email service provider. All this means that Google has unbelievable amount of insight into your life. It controls everything from what you use to access the internet (Chrome), to what you browse (Search), what you probably browse it on (Android), and where you browse it (Maps). It knows what you like to watch, what you like to buy, your daily commute, your upcoming trips, heck it even knows the nuances of your texting habits through Gboard’s predictive learning. In a world where knowledge is correlated to power, Google indeed is one of the most powerful company in the world.
But what does Google do with all this information?
Well, it displays targeted advertisements. Now that may be putting it as bluntly as Google puts its ads, but it’s true. Notice how almost all of Google’s services are free- from YouTube to Maps, even Android is open source! An increasingly relevant saying in the tech world is that ‘if the product provided is free, then you are the product’. This holds true for Google more so than any other company. Ads have been, and still are, the cornerstone of their business. They will also remain so for the foreseeable future, but the company has already started showing signs of diversification. On 2nd October, 2015 Google went through a major reorganization wherein Google, and all the branches we associate under it, became a part of Alphabet. Google’s CEO, Larry Page became Alphabet’s CEO, and Sundar Pichai took over Google which is the umbrella company for all of Alphabet’s internet interests. This was reportedly done to differentiate some undertakings of the company which were far removed from the conception of the tech giant’s name.
The most obvious, and determined push into hardware for the company came in 2016 when Google replaced their Nexus line with the Pixel line. The Nexus line had existed since 2010, albeit as a guide to show other OEMs the direction Android was headed. It did gather a cult following, mostly of people actively involved in tech- but it was never a commercial success and Google never asked it to be. By 2015, the benefits of controlling the entire process of phone manufacture had become too evident to ignore, and Google finally dived into the segment after having dipped their toes in the water for years. The Pixel was a fundamentally different phone, both in philosophy and physical execution. It didn’t have any other brand’s name on it like the nexus line, only Google’s logo.
It had the best camera in a smartphone at the time after years of nexus phones delivering sub-par performance in that department. Most importantly though, it was a departure from the modest pricing of the nexus line as the pixel matched Apple’s iPhone range in price to the cent. Google made it abundantly clear who it was targeting, with one slide showing how people could transfer their data from their previous phone to the Pixel simply using their included cable. The phone on the other side of the cable? iPhone. They spared no expense in marketing either.
But something went wrong.
Google was just not able to sell enough Pixels, with weak orders and reported supply chain problems. Despite doing their best to give their phones an overhaul, Google was unable to change one criteria from the Nexus line that perhaps mattered the most to them- sales. In its second outing, the company refined what was already good about the phone, but strong sales figures still eluded them. With their third try, problems started much earlier than anyone would’ve expected with the designs of the phones leaking a full 5 months before shipment were to start. What’s even worse was the response to those designs, with the majority of people ridiculing the gigantic notch on the Pixel 3 XL. The disbelief over the use of such a deep notch was so great that it was a rife rumor preceding the launch event that Google may have deliberately leaked those designs to troll people with the actual design on stage. That, as we know now, was not to be as Google tried its level best to avoid bringing any attention to the notch, not discussing about it and actually going the distance to show the phones from such angles that the notch would seem less noticeable than it is. Most of the presentation talked about software improvements- AI call answering, image processing, etc.
This just brings back the fact I mentioned right at the beginning as a problem- Google remains a software company at heart. They expect people to be impressed with their software, because this is what they have always observed and still do. The tech community praises the smallest advancements made by Google because of their scale of operation – some of their decisions literally affect every person who is online.
With respect to phones, they just don’t have scale on their side- Pixel sales accounted for less than 1% of total smartphone sales last year, with the numbers falling far short of what Google had projected. This brings us to their attitude- like I mentioned, Google operates without much competition in many departments. A bad YouTube update won’t drop YouTube’s market share by half- in fact it will not move at all- people will just whine and wait for the next update to fix the bugs. A controversy or two won’t result in people shifting to Bing search.
But in the cut-throat android world with so many competent players, small errors are enough to distract consumer attention. You can make the best software experience in the world but if your phone doesn’t look good when someone picks it up, well there is an entire row of phones which do, and consumers will go with that. That seems to be the story of Google pixel so far, and will probably continue this year with review titles like ‘Google software deserves better than this hardware’ by Ars Technica. Let’s just hope that the Pixel lineup doesn’t end up being a much more elaborate and expensive Google Plus, because with the right hardware the Pixel can really be the phone to beat. Till then, Google, the maker of Android, remains the creator and the victim to its own problem.
By Dhruv Malik