Google has zigged and zagged so often in its approach to hardware that it is hard to put too much stock in a branding change based on a single product launch. But Google’s move to kill off the Nexus brand in favor of Pixel has implications beyond the launch of a new phone. This is a lot bigger change than simply rebranding its screen-based hardware (so far, tablets, Chromebooks, and phones). It signals a major shift from a developer-enabling “proof of concept” line of phones under the Nexus brand to an attempt to compete head-to-head with flagships from Microsoft, Apple, and Samsung.
Perhaps the closest analog to Google’s Pixel brand is Microsoft’s Surface. Originally floated as a statement of what was possible with Windows hardware, it has evolved into a key element of Microsoft’s devices and services strategy. Similarly, since the awkward consumer launch of the original Nexus One, Nexus has not been seriously promoted as a mass market product line by Google –although the phones’ attractive pricing and clean software made them popular with plenty of non-developers. But now, Google’s Pixel and Pixel XL are clearly designed to compete directly with the Apple iPhone 7 and Samsung Galaxy 7 families of phones. This is reflected in the Pixel’s premium pricing. Unlike the Nexus phones, the Pixels are definitely not a bargain. Ranging in price from $650 to $870, they’re not going to be purchased based on low price.
The danger for Google as it tries to make Pixel a compelling value and a marketplace winner is that it will damage its Android ecosystem by giving itself, and its Pixels, what its partners perceive as unfair advantages. Google has already given the Pixel phones first crack at Android 7.1, and an exclusive on its much-touted Google Assistant for now. That’s in addition to the natural advantages it will have because Google is doing so much of the hardware design and the software — like the uniquely-powerful version of HDR+ in the camera, and gyroscopically coupled image stabilization (not unique to the Pixel, but tricky to pull off).
Amazon has long since forked its version of Android, but now Samsung is becoming increasingly open about the possibility of using Tizen instead of Google’s Android on more of its devices. Samsung could probably only make that work by shipping a version of Tizen that runs most Android apps — but it wouldn’t be automatically tied into Google’s Play services and data collection framework. Pixel is also potential insurance on Google’s part against the possibility of Samsung moving away from Google’s version of Android, and no doubt a negotiating chip it can use with Samsung and others to help keep its ecosystem moving forward. Google may push things further by producing some of its own silicon for future versions of the Pixel.
Google doesn’t have a great track record in consumer hardware. Other than the popular Chromecast, most of it has either targeted niche markets — like the Nexus phones for developers — or has had limited success (or even failed before launch, like the Nexus Q). That doesn’t even count the odd purchase and subsequent sale of Motorola’s phone business after a very poor showing. This time, though, Google is clearly much more intent on making its mark, at least in smart home devices. It is a much more open question whether the Pixel brand — Google’s third try at the mass market for phones — will be a success with consumers.