How the Google Pixel can eventually topple the iPhone
Amongst everything else that 2016 was notable for, we saw Google abandon its Nexus line of handsets and replace them with the Pixels – even purer visions of what Google phones should be. While the Pixel and Pixel XL may seem underpowered and overpriced at first glance, they're actually in with a chance of overtaking the iPhone juggernaut.
What follows is a list of some of the ways the Pixel and Pixel XL stand out, and how those differences give them a shot of giving Apple some serious worry, not just in 2017 but in the years ahead as Google refines its new Pixel approach.
These pointers are part observation and part advice about where Google might go with future versions of the phones (in case you're reading, Mountain View execs), but we've got no insider knowledge about what comes next – and in case you're wondering, we're big fans of the Apple iPhone too. If you've got any predictions or opinions of your own, let us know via the comments.
Put Google Assistant front and center
Google Assistant – which you can't even get on other Android phones for the time being – is far from perfect in its current incarnation, but it promises a next-generation level of assistance that could potentially leave Siri in the dust.
If Google can iron out the early bugs from Assistant and improve its accuracy, we might be close to seeing something along the lines of the smart OS in the Spike Jonze movie Her: a digital friend completely tailored to our own personality and our own lives.
And Google is getting better and better at guessing where we want to go, what we want to see and what we're searching for before our fingers can reach the keyboard. With its ability to run web searches, launch apps, contact friends and more, it's perfectly plausible that we're looking at the future of the smartphone interface – a friendly bot in place of those rows and columns of icons.
For this to happen Google will have to get Assistant working a lot better by the time the Pixel 2 launches, but we think it has its nose in front of Apple's Siri and Microsoft's Cortana in this regard, which might give iPhone owners pause for thought.
Siri and Google Now have featured prominently in the most recent iOS, iPhone and Android unveilings, so we'd expect more of the same in 2017 – and as hardware design and innovation reaches a plateau, software could be key.
More free gifts and ecosystem support
Here's a Pixel bonus you might not have heard about: free, unlimited, original-sized photo and video uploads to Google Photos.
Normally users have to either accept a certain amount of resizing in return for unlimited storage, or stump up some cash for extra storage to keep their images and clips at their original resolution. With a Pixel or Pixel XL, you don't have to pay for any storage or put up with any compression – anything uploaded from a Pixel device isn't counted against your Google Photos storage.
More perks like that (and Google Assistant counts as another) would certainly give iPhone users pause for thought, many of whom will already be using apps such as Gmail, Google Maps, Google Drive and so on on their iOS devices.
Would you be tempted by a Pixel if it meant a few extra goodies in Gmail? Or perhaps a movie a month from Google Play? Google hasn't been shy in dishing out rewards in the past and there are all sorts of approaches it can take.
Don't forget that Google is more or less a hardware manufacturer now too – the Pixel 2 could be blessed with all kinds of exclusive Google Home or Chromecast tie-ins. There's also VR, and it's perhaps no coincidence that the Pixel and Pixel XL have been built to work seamlessly with the Daydream headset.
Many iPhone users are keen Mac fans as well, and Apple works hard to make all of its devices talk intelligently to each other. If Google can get its own hardware and software ecosystem in place, it's another reason for consumers to opt for the Pixel.
Work harder on price
There is a school of thought that Google priced up the Pixels to match Apple's iPhones directly, rather than as a reflection of what the handsets actually cost to build. After all, if Apple can get billions in the bank with a high markup on its phones, why shouldn't Google pull off the same trick?
Well, perhaps because Apple customers are used to paying a premium and the iPhone is a much more established brand. What's more, Google has launched some fantastically priced Nexus devices in the past, which makes premium-level pricing on the Pixels even harder to swallow.
We don't doubt that starting your own phone range is a costly business, and Google doesn't have the same manufacturing infrastructure (yet?) as the likes of Apple and Samsung, but if there's one area Google can really stand out it's with lower prices.
After all, it's the Google way – Gmail, Google Maps and most of its other apps and services are free to use and attract millions of users. The company makes its money through data collection and advertising, and while we wouldn't like to see ads on Pixel home screens, Google does have experience in getting people through the door for free and recouping its costs in other ways.
A low, low price would certainly tempt iPhone users away from Apple's walled garden, as the cheap Nexus phones of the past have proved. It would also help Google compete against Samsung's phones, which also cost a substantial amount of money.
This won't be easy, and it might mess with the premium mindset that Google is looking to foster with the Pixels, but if the iPhone has one glaring weakness it's the high price of its handsets (part of the reason the iPhone SE now exists).
In many ways the Pixel and Pixel XL are perfectly timed: phones that are more than the sum of their parts appearing just as the whole idea of the smartphone starts to come into question. Next year the iPhone, which set the bar for the modern-day mobile, turns 10 – and it's going to be very interesting to see where the technology goes next.