‘Android is not invincible’: What Google is risking by releasing its Pixel smartphone

Android may be the dominant smartphone operating system (OS) but “it’s not invincible,” according to analysis firm IHS Markit, which argues that Google’s latest Pixel smartphone could risk antagonizing manufacturers reliant on the software.

On Tuesday, Google – a subsidiary of Alphabet – held a hardware event in which it launched two smartphones – the Pixel and Pixel XL – a smart home hub called Google Home, a virtual reality (VR) headset, Wi-Fi routers and a new version of its Chromecast streaming device.

The Pixel smartphone runs Google’s Android software and comes with Google Assistant – the technology giant’s digital personal assistant similar to Apple’s Siri, which is also present on its Home hub.

By releasing its own hardware, Google has gone the route of Apple, looking to tightly knit devices and software to create a strong ecosystem. It’s a shift from the strategy it employed with its previous Nexus smartphones where it used the devices to show its hardware partners the capabilities of Android.

Sabrina Ellis, Director of Product Management at Google, speaks about the new Pixel phone during the presentation of new Google hardware in San Francisco, California, U.S. October 4, 2016.

Beck Diefenbach | Reuters
Sabrina Ellis, Director of Product Management at Google, speaks about the new Pixel phone during the presentation of new Google hardware in San Francisco, California, U.S. October 4, 2016.

“This is the final defeat for the operating system licensing model which Microsoft pioneered, and everyone tried to copy before Apple’s iPhone success,” Ian Fogg, senior director of mobile and telecoms at IHS Markit, said in a note Tuesday.

But in taking this route, Google is not so much taking on Apple, but more challenging its partners such as Samsung, LG and Sony, something that could be potentially troublesome.

“Google’s relationship with OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) like Samsung has always been complicated, but today’s (Tuesday) announcements made it even more so, especially given that Google appears to be aiming both at the premium smartphone and VR headset spaces which Samsung currently dominates when it comes to Android,” Jan Dawson, an analyst at Jackdaw Research, wrote in a blog post on Tuesday.

“Unlike Microsoft, Google made no attempt to justify its entry into first-party hardware in competition with its partners – there were no claims of merely showing OEMs the way, merely a displacement of erstwhile partners in the value chain. Google is building its own relationships with carriers and supplanting device partners.”

Android ‘not invincible’

It’s clear that Google will have to play its push into hardware very carefully. Over 4 in 5 smartphones globally run Android so there is a lot at stake, and analysts said that device makers running Android will now be looking at alternatives such as Tizen, the operating system created by Samsung. While Google may dominate, it’s position could come under threat.

“Google still has many smartphone hardware partners, unlike Apple, and it continues to need them. Because if not, Samsung may ramp its fall-back Tizen OS strategy, and more significantly Google’s many China headquartered smartphone maker partners may fork Android and take their more proprietary Chinese Android variants into international markets,” Fogg said.

“Android may be dominant now, but it’s not invincible if Google makes the wrong strategic moves and undermines its ecosystem partners.”

Still, Samsung and others may not be worried. In the U.S., Google has exclusively partnered with Verizon for users to buy the phone on contract. Analysts said the limited distribution at the start won’t make it an immediate threat to other players.

“Google is still fighting an uphill battle when it comes to mainstream adoption of its hardware beyond Chromecast, and there’s little here to suggest that this will change anytime soon,” Dawson said.