How Google is tak­ing back con­trol of An­droid

The Pixel is Google’s way of say­ing, “Our An­droid is bet­ter than yours.”

Android Advisor - - Contents - MICHAEL SIMON re­ports

With the Pixel 2, Google’s mes­sage is clear: For the best An­droid ex­pe­ri­ence, come to us. Call it the Google stamp of ap­proval. Where the Nexus phones were born of part­ner­ships with the likes of HTC, Huawei, and LG, Google’s name was pur­pose­fully ab­sent. They were ‘pure’ An­droid phones.

Even though the Pixel 2 and 2 XL are man­u­fac­tured by HTC and LG, re­spec­tively, the ‘G’ logo on the back is there to re­mind us that it’s Google through and through. As Mario Queiroz re­called at the Oc­to­ber event: “We set out to de­sign a phone our­selves be­cause we be­lieved we could make the smart­phone ex­pe­ri­ence bet­ter.” Sim­ply put, the Pixel phones are about Google first, An­droid sec­ond.

When Google launched the orig­i­nal Pixel, it loaded it with fea­tures no other phones had: Google As­sis­tant, Day­dream sup­port, a killer cam­era ex­pe­ri­ence, years of up­dates. It would take months for the best fea­tures to trickle down to the rest of the An­droid uni­verse, of­fer­ing but a small taste of what it’s like to use Google’s vi­sion for what An­droid should be.

A year later, Google’s dou­bling down on all of it.

The best of Google built in

On the sur­face, Google is still play­ing nice with its big­gest An­droid part­ners. There’s a prom­ise from Google that Sam­sung, HTC, LG, and oth­ers will re­lease an An­droid 8 Oreo up­date be­fore the end of this year, not next. Then there’s Project Tre­ble, which aims to take much of the heavy lift­ing away from fu­ture An­droid up­dates.

Google’s mes­sage with the Pixel 2, though, is that you can do bet­ter. Google is no longer con­tent to sit on the side­lines while man­u­fac­tur­ers sell mil­lions of phones based on bas­tardized ver­sions of its An­droid vi­sion. Its bil­lion-dol­lar pur­chase of HTC’s smart­phone team proves that point. It’s ba­si­cally say­ing, “You can get a wa­tered-down An­droid ex­pe­ri­ence with the Note

8 or the V30. Or you can get the best end-to-end so­lu­tion from us.”

Google also makes a sub­tle dis­tinc­tion, where its idea of ‘the best’ fo­cuses more on the soft­ware than the hard­ware. Even be­fore Google showed off a sin­gle de­vice yes­ter­day, it braced us for a harsh re­al­ity: Noth­ing you see will be rev­o­lu­tion­ary. “The play­ing field for hard­ware com­po­nents is lev­el­ling off,” Google’s Rick Oster­loh said.

Oster­loh con­tin­ued with a thinly veiled ref­er­ence to Sam­sung and Ap­ple’s on­go­ing, tit-for-tat bat­tle for best flag­ship phone. “I don’t envy those of you who

have to write reviews for a bunch of smart­phones with very sim­i­lar specs.... Core fea­tures are ta­ble stakes now.” Oster­loh has a point: The Note 8 is eas­ily the best phone Sam­sung has ever made and ar­guably one of the best smart­phones ever, but its soft­ware is still its weak­est link.

An­droid as in­tended

The Pixel 2 won’t turn heads like the Galaxy S8 or iPhone X, but it might be the best An­droid phone ever made. Not just An­droid at its purest, like Nexus phones rep­re­sented, but the ver­sion of An­droid you can’t get any­where else. No one is buy­ing a Galaxy phone for the Sam­sung Ex­pe­ri­ence, but Google thinks peo­ple

will choose the Pixel for what it brings to An­droid. And this year, it’s in the form of apps and fea­tures, not UI tweaks. In fact, the Pixel 2 doesn’t tech­ni­cally run a new ver­sion of An­droid Oreo at all. But com­pare it to the ver­sion run­ning on a Nexus 6P, and the dif­fer­ences are clear. The Launcher has been tweaked to put the search bar in a log­i­cal po­si­tion and spot­light up­com­ing events. There’s an ex­clu­sive pre­view of Google Lens. A squeeze-to-launch-As­sis­tant ges­ture. And it has a neat cam­era app trick that sim­u­lates bokeh with just a sin­gle lens.

Mind you, none of these things are ground­break­ing. Other man­u­fac­tur­ers have done back­ground blur­ring with­out the use of a sec­ond cam­era. Wid­gets let you put your cal­en­dar en­tries on your home screen. Bixby Vi­sion uses the cam­era for iden­ti­fy­ing books, wine, and build­ings. But none of those fea­tures are as well in­te­grated as An­droid is on the Pixel. Sam­sung may have built a Bixby but­ton into the 2017 Galaxy phones, but I guar­an­tee more peo­ple will be squeez­ing their Pixel phones to launch As­sis­tant. It’s An­droid as Google in­tended: fully in­te­grated with Google ser­vices in a seam­less, fluid man­ner.

The ul­ti­mate up­dater

The best fea­ture of the Pixel didn’t even get a men­tion on the stage yes­ter­day. Ac­cord­ing to the tech specs for the Pixel 2, the phones are guar­an­teed to get three years of OS up­dates, a jump from the pre­vi­ous Pixel’s two-year prom­ise. That means when An­droid Rolo or Ring-Dings launches in 2020, to­day’s Pix­els will be able to in­stall it on day one.

Three years of An­droid OS up­dates is a big deal – an iOS level of com­mit­ment that no other An­droid phone of­fers. You can spend £800+ on an An­droid phone from any other man­u­fac­turer and you’re only re­ally cer­tain to get one ma­jor up­date. Even a near­stock phone like Es­sen­tial still hasn’t pushed out an Oreo up­date more than a month after its pub­lic re­lease. The Pixel 2 is the first An­droid phone that ob­so­letes ob­so­les­cence.

At some point over the next year, Google Lens will land in the Play Store, and the Pixel 2 launcher will ap­pear in the Play Store. Maybe Google will even add por­trait mode to the Google Cam­era. But the ex­pe­ri­ence still won’t be the same as us­ing a Pixel 2. Per­haps this will force other man­u­fac­tur­ers to stay closer to stock An­droid to stay rel­e­vant. No amount of Pixel pres­sure is ever go­ing to rein in Sam­sung, but maybe it will spur them to de­liver time­lier and longer up­dates.

If Google were launch­ing An­droid to­day, I have lit­tle doubt that it would be a Pixel-only OS. Google has slowly been rein­ing in An­droid’s open­ness, and in many ways, the Pixel 2 is the ul­ti­mate fork, one that sep­a­rates the orig­i­nal from the im­i­ta­tors. If it works, An­droid as we know it may never be the same.

Hard­ware and de­sign aren’t im­por­tant on the Pixel 2

Ac­tive Edge on the Pixel 2 lets you squeeze to launch Google As­sis­tant

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