If there is a company that I am very invested in as a consumer, it is Google. I use 30 of the companies apps on my Android phone, my main laptop (that I am typing this on currently) is made by Google running their desktop OS (Chrome OS), and use Google Assistant on multiple smart home devices. I am very invested in both the company’s hardware and software. If tech was a poker game, I would be all-in on all things Google. For the most part, I think that most people have a positive opinion on the company and its hardware, yet there seems to be a growing narrative that the company is not doing enough particularly in the hardware that the company makes. Ultimately, Google is fighting a battle that it might not be able to win and that is a battle of expectations.
The Price of Fame
Google as a name is quite ubiquitous in popular culture. The term “Googling” has come to represent all search engines, not unlike how we associate Kleenex with facial tissue. This type of recognition can be a powerful tool for a company. It buys instant notoriety and recognition with tech enthusiasts and everyday users of technology. So when a company with the gravitas and clout of Google decides to enter into hardware manufacturing, there is a certain expectation that comes with it.
Google as a company in the mind of consumers is known in two primary spaces: web search and mobile operating systems. Search and Android are two entities that the company leverages to create market dominance. There is a certain quality that is attributed to the company as a result of this, primarily in the case of search. Google search is so good at what it does, to the point that other competitors are more formalities than actual competition. This reputation of excellence creates a certain expectation when a company enters a new realm, like hardware manufacturing.
When the rumors began to start in 2016 before the original Google Pixel was announced, there was a certain level of excitement around the product. For years during the Nexus Program era, many tech enthusiasts would wonder what if Google made the hardware AND the software? With all of the money behind a company like Google, surely there could be something amazing manufactured to pair with the already very competent stock Android software. After all, this wasn’t a company that only made smartphones like Motorola or HTC, this was Google!
Yet as the releases have come over the last 4 years, the reception of Google’s phone hardware has been lukewarm at best. The commonality in all reviews is basically along the lines that the hardware is good but not great, while the software is excellent. In reality, there are no perfect phones or perfect products for that matter. Asking Google to create hardware with the same ethos as Samsung or Apple does not make much sense. There is a certain identity for each brand in the way that they design hardware.
In the Android world, different companies convey different messages with their hardware. Samsung since the Galaxy S6 and Note 5 era has exuded flash and sex appeal. LG has prioritized a function over form approach with as many hardware specifications as possible. When HTC was still making phones their focus was around using the best materials with excellent ergonomics. Google, first and foremost, is a software company. The idea behind the company’s hardware is to use design to highlight this software prowess. As a result, the thought of Pixel hardware and the other made by Google products have had a major focus on industrial design and usability. This identity seems to be lost on many people when they evaluate Google hardware, expecting it to be a mimic of what Samsung and Apple are attempting to accomplish.
Google Hardware Identity
Google does not make hardware that anyone would consider to be flashy in any sense of the word. Companies like OnePlus and Samsung have been experimenting with different gradient glass finished on their phone, and the results are visually stunning. These effects started with phones like the HTC U11 and Honor 8 and have been a staple to creating the visual eye candy that Android phones have these days.
Google has never taken a tactic of being particularly flashy. When I think of Google design, I tend to think of simplicity and functionality. Therefore, expecting the company to simply mimic Samsung does not make a lot of sense. Even during the Nexus days, where the company would commission various manufacturers to make their devices, there was not much in the way of hardware flashiness. Looking at the companied various first-party hardware efforts there is a consistent identity of minimalism and simplicity. Let’s take a look at what the company currently offers in its hardware lineup.
Google Pixel 4: The flagship phone from Google. This phone’s design is an epitome of simplicity with a flat color on the rear and a black face that allows the OLED screen to blend perfectly when turned off. Two of the three colors that this phone is offered in a matte finish, and all three feature a more grippy side rail that is designed around usability. The entire makeup of this phone is centered around holding the phone comfortably and using the software without the hardware disrupting the experience with a lack of ergonomics.
Google Smart Speakers: Google currently makes 5 different smart home speakers: Nest Mini, Nest Hub, Nest Hub Max, Google Home, and Google Home Max. Some of these have screens (Nest Hub & Hub Max) and the others do not. But the design of these devices is intended to blend into the decor of the home. To be used as accents and not to be a blatant piece of technology. There is an understated nature to the cloth material that these devices share, something that detracts from the fact that this is a piece of tech.
Nest Wifi: If there is something that has zero positive design traits, it is a Wifi router. The Nest Wifi and the Google Wifi before it showcased a smaller physical footprint without the angles and faux-futurism of routers from companies like Netgear and Linksys. The rounded design of this device lines up with the rest of Google’s smart home devices and has a similar effect of blending into the home.
Google Pixel Buds: This is Google’s newest hardware product. The design of these mimics the aesthetic of the Pixel 4 with a compact design with an accessible touch panel area to utilize Google Assistant and media playback controls. The design of these has a built-in wing designed to stay secure and also still allows for some ambient noise to pass through. These decisions are reflections of the way that Google aims the usability of their earbuds to function. Instead of looking like AirPods or being unnecessarily large, there are practical solutions offered here that other earbuds do not solve.
Google Pixelbook Go: The Pixelbook series is Google’s in house Chromebook lineup. The Pixelbook Go is the latest in the line and is a very focused product. Designed for the person that is constantly on the go (hence the name), everything about the build of this laptop is in service of this idea. The ridged bottom makes the device easy to carry, as does its very light overall weight. The low profile keys and glass trackpad also exude an aura of reliability and efficiency befitting the target audience of the product. There is minimal branding on this all magnesium alloy built machine, further speaking to the minimal nature of the design of this product.
There is a common identity with all of these products, they are designed to fit into our everyday lives instead of standing out from them. Perhaps this is the issue with Google hardware, that we as a tech consuming public expect more from the company. Something more extravagant, something more cutting edge and exciting. This is the expectation that we have from such a recognizable company, no to mention the company that makes the software that runs on phones deemed superior to its efforts.
The Curse of Android
Android is the world’s most popular operating system. Android accounts for 70% of the world’s mobile operating systems and 39% of all operating systems on mobile and desktop. That is a lot of devices that are running Android. The company we associate the most with Android is of course Google. The company acquired the operating system back in 2005 and spearheads the development of the platform.
Being at the forefront of such a relevant and omnipresent entity comes with a lot of expectations when you decide to make your phones. As the company that develops the software, there is a certain expectation from the public that Google makes phones with an equal amount of polish. Especially since the software on Nexus and Pixel devices has long been superior to skins from other manufacturers. Wanting an equal level of quality from hardware as there is in software is to be expected.
This is what creates a sort of double-edged sword for Google when it comes to the Android platform. The operating system has been in a state of fine-tuning for a few versions at this point, it is very much a finished product. This creates pressure to have the hardware match the software, and this is an unrealistic request. On top of this, Google entered an arena of creating hardware that had veterans like Samsung and LG that have been making phones for many years. To simply expect the company to compete on that scale immediately was irrational.
This is where we are with Google’s phone hardware at this point. Pixel phones have good but not great build when compared to Apple and Samsung. These same phones have class-leading software in the Android world. On their own, they are premium devices. However, we do not evaluate these products in a vacuum. We compare them to their competition. And while there is a different flavor argument to be had for a Pixel versus the competitive offerings, the Google name makes the argument that much more difficult for the brand to succeed.
It seems that regardless of what Google does with the Pixel, there is more to be requested whereas other OEMs don’t seem to be judged as critically. This is the weight of being such a successful company in other areas. Success is expected across other areas regardless of the companies expertise or lack thereof. This has caused Google to take action to make the hardware better, to acquire companies that will solve this seemingly unsolvable puzzle.
Quietly Brilliant Pressure
The action that Google took to change the negative perception of its hardware was acquiring the smartphone division of HTC in 2018. On the surface, this made all the sense in the world. HTC was struggling financially at the time but was well known for making phones with great hardware. Google was incredibly profitable in need of some fresh new designs. It seemed like a perfect fit. The issue though was not immediately evident. Acquiring the team from HTC means that you now have to uphold their legacy of design excellence.
Many people consider the HTC One M8 as one of the best-designed phones of all time. The company’s 10 and U11 phones were also critically acclaimed for their well thought out design. HTC brought smartphones from plastic to metal unibody and changed the way that we look at smartphone design. The Taiwanese company has a history of design excellence that has now become the responsibility of Google to maintain and advance.
This pressure to maintain the HTC legacy coupled with the companies minimalist design philosophy creates strange friction for the company. Where the two different schools of thought have something of an impasse. HTC hardware was always pushing the boundaries of what was thought to be possible. Google hardware aims to get out of the way of the software that it runs. The first result of this was the Pixel 4.
The result of that seems to favor the Google part of the impasse more than anything. Where this becomes problematic for Google is having to deal with the typical criticism of being too understated now also adds on the idea that the companies acquisition of HTC was a waste since it is still business as usual. As a result of all of this, Google continues to flirt with the idea of a massive reinvention of their design ethos. A change that would be brought on simply for the sake of keeping up with the Joneses would be rather misguided, a further testament to the misinterpretation of the company’s hardware philosophy.
Google, when all is said and done, is a software company first. This is what the company cares about. All of their innovation through the years has come in the way of software prowess. Some of Google’s biggest recent innovations have come from their advancement in artificial intelligence through services like Google Photos and Assistant. The identity of the company is one of constantly improving software. Their hardware decisions are influenced by this, a point that is on full display when the company uses low-cost camera lenses and maximizes the potential out of them with their smart HDR technology.
The company has always wanted their software to be the star of the show on all of their devices. A company like Samsung does not have this sort of priority. Samsung is a hardware company first that is trying to optimize its software just enough to create a selling point. Samsung will always have superior looking hardware because that is their business model.
The goal of Google hardware is as a vehicle to highlight the software that the end-user will interact with. The device itself for Google is the supporting cast not the star of the show. As a user, I appreciate this, especially from a longevity perspective. The confidence in knowing that the software on a device will keep with use and in some cases get better over time is of higher value to me as a consumer to good looking hardware that depreciates in quality rapidly as time goes on.
How is Google to solve this? What can the company do to change this perception of elevated expectations? The answer to that seems to be in the company’s newfound pivot to the mid-range of the pricing tier. Operating in that price bracket as opposed to the flagship space is a bit more forgiving and not having cutting edge hardware is more acceptable. Google’s Pixel 3a from last year showed the world what Google can do with a mid-range phone and the results were impressive.
Operating between the $400–700 price range allows Google to focus on software without the backlash of not stacking up in sex appeal to Samsung and Apple. When the narrative can be switched to a software focus simply because mid-range hardware has lower expectation can help change these demands of Google’s hardware. Understanding what you do well is very important, and this is a moment in time where Google can look in the mirror and focus on its strengths. As it stands currently, the company is fighting a war of perception that it will never win. Perhaps it is time to take a couple of steps back and fight a different war.