When we think of successful product releases we all too often think of companies reinventing the wheel. Apple’s incarnations of the iPhone, for example, are only truly lauded when they undergo significant change in both form and function and any conservative progression is met with a sigh. But change for change’s sake is often easy to spot and is almost always rejected as such, as Apple found with its ill-conceived decision to do away with the headphone jack on its iPhone 7; positive change is good, pointless change is bad.
Reinventing the wheel doesn’t always work, either. In fact, most of the time it fails, and high profile failures are as much a disappointment to customers as they are to a company’s chequebook. Google’s Project Ara is a perfect example - the once promising modular smartphone was axed earlier this year after delay on top of delay made the project unworkable. With every teasing demonstration of the technology, every new design leak, Google set itself up for a fall and, ultimately, Ara goes down as an expensive misstep.
It’s almost funny that Google’s next big success should be such a far cry from the ostensibly revolutionary Ara. When the company announced Pixel at their early-October event, the tech world reacted with feigned wonder despite the design having been leaked some time prior. What was confirmed beyond doubt upon the final reveal, though, is just how spectacularly the Pixel resembles the iPhone. From the visible antenna lines to the size of the bezel and the shape of the receiver, the Pixel is almost indistinguishable from its more established competition at a glance.
The only notable difference in form is the placement of the fingerprint scanner/home button. In what is quite a bold move, Google has positioned the scanner on the back of the phone for use with the forefinger, and it doubled as a scroll wheel. The curved, metallic edges of the phone are indistinguishable and there’s obviously a front camera - ‘there’s no unsightly camera bump’ like the iPhone, as pointed out by Google’s senior vice-president of hardware Rick Osterloh. The real difference, though, is on the inside; the Pixel has some of the smartest software seen in a smartphone to date, successfully pulling together most of the things customers liked about Android phones into one device.
The jewell in the crown of Pixel’s software is Google Assistant. For all that Siri is impressive, it’s often criticised for not being ‘intelligent’ enough and also is known to bug you with requests. By contrast, Assistant is to the point, functional, with an ability to understand the context in which a question or request is asked and respond accordingly. It makes for far more fluid interaction, as demonstrated by the myriad first-look reviews flooding the web. Google has built the phone with Assistant at its core, and it’ll be interesting to see if this can be the learning AI that consumers engage with properly.
Another of Google’s trump cards is the quality of the camera, which has a stripped down app akin to the iPhone’s, and boasts a 12.3-megapixel camera (just better than that of the iPhone 7). It’s an incredibly fast camera, too, and Google has clearly put a lot of work into a facet of the smartphone that Apple has excelled at for some time.
Essentially, though, Google has taken a look at the iPhone 7 and asked: ‘what is it people hate about this?’ The most obvious distinction is the inclusion of a standard 3.5mm headphone jack - infamously ditched by Apple - which the company describes as ‘satisfyingly not new’ in a commercial. Battery life is another sticking point in Apple’s domination of the smartphone market, and Google claim the Pixel can take seven hours of charge in just 15 minutes, something that’ll appeal to the weary Apple customer all too accustomed to the battery percentage languishing in the single digits.
Google may find some issues with Apple’s diligent patent prosecution council for the design, but doubtless holds enough legal might itself to avoid any major setbacks. Some speculate that Google actively wants to fight the fight with Apple in terms of patents, but the likely reality is that it designed around Apple’s stringent patents meticulously. It will pay off; the comfortable familiarity of the conservatively premium design alone gives it more credibility than Ara could ever have had. So far the iPhone comparison has done little to mar opinion of Pixel and, as a vessel for Google Assistant, Google’s pledge to be taken seriously as a hardware company looks promising.