Google unifies Android user experience with Pixel

Photograph of a person using Google Assistant on an Android phone to check traffic on their route to work.

Last week, Google held a rare product event to introduce its first-generation “Made by Google” product line, the centerpiece of which was an all-new handset called Google Pixel. Pixel—along with its 5.5-inch cousin, the Pixel XL—is a flagship Android smartphone from the stewards of Android themselves. They boast top-of-the-line hardware specs, an industry-leading camera system, and a minimalist design aesthetic reminiscent of Google’s Cupertino rival. But more interesting than what Pixel actually does is what it represents—Google is no longer entrusting Android hardware manufacturers to set the standard for the industry, and has begun setting the bar itself.

Of course, this isn’t the first time Google has dabbled in hardware. Its storied Nexus line of smartphones, tablets, and even set-top boxes had sought to define the best of what Android could offer since 2010. But Google never retained complete design control over Nexus products, instead trusting OEMs like Motorola and HTC to meet minimum specification requirements and put their logos alongside the Nexus logotype. For all its firsts and future-leaning feature ideas, the Nexus line failed to capture the imagination of a larger audience than Android die-hards and Google adherents, and certainly didn’t have the kind of industry-defining impact enjoyed by devices from Apple and Samsung.

Enter Pixel: the first smartphone designed by Google and manufactured with a singular “G” insignia that the Mountain View giant hopes will transform its business from a web services–oriented search firm into a bona fide consumer product developer. Pixel is simple and unassuming in its design, with tapered enclosure and fingerprint sensor matching many of the Android flagships currently in the market. But what’s most notable about Pixel is that it exists at all, and specifically that it carries Google’s hardware ambitions on its lopsided aluminum shoulders.

In a way, Pixel carries the full weight of Google’s hardware-company ambitions on its lopsided aluminum shoulders.

Google doesn’t want to leave Android user experience up to a handful of companies interested in racing to the bottom in terms of price and racing to the absurd in terms of the processor arms race. It views Android as a premium operating system befitting of a premium handset, and Pixel does well to represent that perspective. The fresh coat of paint applied to Pixel’s launcher in Android 7.1 Nougat makes the operating system feel more dynamic and proactive than ever, automatically surfacing relevant services and recommendations based on user input and on-screen content. But Google Assistant is only part of a story that Google hopes will unify its OS and hardware ventures as its platforms evolve.

Pixel is the vanguard for the next big platform—virtual reality

Pixel is among the first Daydream-ready smartphones to enter the market, a standard put forth by Google to support its virtual reality initiatives. With standards around screen fidelity and processor performance, Daydream-ready smartphones can power immersive VR experiences without an expensive gaming PC setup. Google believes that virtual reality is the next big operating system evolution, and has positioned its products to be among the first to really deliver on that goal.

Android Daydream is perhaps the first entrant in mobile’s next big platform evolution—and Pixel is positioned to power it from day one.

But Daydream is bigger than Pixel, and instead is a hardware specifications baseline that all Android OEMs can now strive for. To be compatible with Daydream, the VR environment that will soon be ubiquitous among Nougat-powered Android devices, smartphones need to achieve certain minimums for processors, display resolution and performance, and internal sensors. For Android app developers—even those not currently interested in building virtual reality apps—this level of standardization is a welcome addition to the platform.

Google has unified its hardware teams—and isn’t sitting still

Beyond Pixel and its Daydream View VR headset, Google has begun organizing its hardware products into a cohesive product story. With Google Home—the Amazon Echo–lookalike that offers Google Assistant throughout the home—new product lines like Google Wifi, and new additions like the 4K–ready Chromecast Ultra, Google doesn’t only want to become the only web services company customers need, it also wants to become the only hardware company customers need.

Apple has long been a company that differentiates itself by seamlessly integrating hardware and software, versus giants like 1990s Microsoft who licensed Windows to OEMs building Intel-powered PCs, or Google in the 2000s open-sourcing Android for smartphone vendors. But now Google seems intent on offering the same degree of cohesion across Android and Chrome product families, and seeks to deliver a consistent user experience across Android- and Google-powered hardware offerings.

Pixel may not be an overnight success—it’s exceedingly difficult for even the steward of Android to transform the highly competitive Android smartphone market. But in the future, thanks to Google’s forward-leaning new hardware, its aggressive Nougat upgrade plans, and its standardization of specifications with programs like Daydream, Android app developers might enjoy a level of UX consistency and predictability previously unheard of on the platform. If Google’s new product families are as successful as they aspire to be, we might all get used to another “Designed by Someone in California.”