Google explains its plans to get users into its new Pixel ecosystem - but the big challenge is taking on Apple

Apple’s walled garden will be hard to surpass if Google is adamant to remaining an open platform

Google has finally taken its first steps to competing with Apple’s tightly-knit ecosystem. At I/O, the search giant’s developer conference last week, the company revealed a range of premium hardware: the long-rumoured Pixel Watch, the Pixel Buds Pro, and the Google Pixel 7.

The Pixel 7, and before it the Pixel 6, have been Google’s way of bringing people into ‘pure Android’ - the integration of hardware and software that made Apple’s iPhone so popular.

“We’ve grown a pretty decent fanbase of the phones that we’ve been building to date, and each phone that we’ve released over the last six years, it’s got better and better”, Mike Sullivan, Google’s UK head of consumer marketing, told The Independent. “With the Pixel 6, we saw a bit of step change with it being Google’s first fully made phone with the software and the hardware chip”

Up until then, Google’s main way to compete with Apple was through third-parties. The most premium Android experience came from Samsung’s devices, as did the most attractive premium Android watch. But next to Apple, both companies have lacked a level of control.

Last year, Samsung and Google announced a partnership for Wear OS on the Galaxy Watch 4, but it was only this February that the smartwatch got Google Assistant support. In comparison, the Apple Watch has consistently been the selling wearable on the market, and has outsold the entire Swiss watch industry.

Google’s announcement could be the first step to changing that- one focused on the Pixel 6 the way that Apple built its dominance off the iPhone. “The phone itself is the gateway into the ecosystem. The watch is a real great build into the ecosystem as well. I think people seeing that there’s an option for everything is going to help”, Mr Sullivan said. “It’s convincing people to join the portfolio and build the devices that they own beyond just the phone.”

However, hardware is not always the most compelling factor; software is too. Apple’s ecosystem has proved so popular because its best features only work with other Apple devices, managed through the stranglehold of user data Apple keeps on its users via their iCloud account.

The Android platform has qualities that sets it apart from Apple and that some find preferential to Apple, but for Google its best features are exclusive to the phone, not the ecosystem.

“Google’s a software company first and foremost, so I think the smarts that come with the phone are the thing that differentiates Google, and I think Magic Eraser is the perfect example”, Mr Sullivan says, citing the ability to seamlessly remove people from the background of photos using machine learning, a tool exclusive to the Pixel range.

Yet the company faces challenges in two ways: the first is that Magic Eraser was a long time coming, first mentioned in 2017. During that time, other companies rolled out similar gimmicks. Huawei’s P40 phones had a “remove passerby” mode, while Samsung has its own “object eraser” tool. It’s possible that, for some customers, Google’s long wait between announcing a feature and its launching could put them off. “We tend to reveal things early to help the development of them”, Mr Sullivan says, adding that Magic Eraser is the most searched for feature on a Pixel, followed by Live Translate.

The second is that Android is an open platform - something that Google prides itself on, and is arguably better for consumers, but which does not help grow an ecosystem in the way that Apple has. One of the ‘killer apps’ for Apple is iMessage - especially in the US, where competing platforms like WhatsApp, Signal, and Telegram are less popular.

“Being able to access multiple devices gives more options to consumers. It gives consumers more choice, and I think that’s a good thing”, Mr Sullivan says. “Ultimately if it’s good for consumers it’s good for people who offer that to consumers”.

This philosophy is questionable. As revealed through court documents submitted as part of the legal battle between Fortnite publisher Epic Games and Apple, the iPhone giant could have made a version of iMessage that works on Android devices but chose not to.

Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior vice president of software engineering and the executive in charge of iOS, shot down the idea. “iMessage on Android would simply serve to remove [an] obstacle to iPhone families giving their kids Android phones”, he said, adding that it would be a “horrible idea” to “make it easier for someone to switch away from our platforms”.

What is good for customers is not necessarily what is good for business. Apple’s walled garden is powerful enough that integrating features between devices can casually erase competitors like Duet Display, which was replaced by Sidecar - a move that is more convenient for Apple’s end users, at the expense of competition.

In contrast, Android openness means Microsoft - which should be Google’s natural partner in taking on Apple - can circumvent Google entirely to offer Android apps through Amazon’s app store, rather than the more popular Google Play Store.

“All stores [and] all apps are welcome on Microsoft Store”, chief product officer for Windows Panos Panay told The Independent, but neither company responded to questions about why they were not working together. “This is not my area of expertise”, Mr Sullivan said.

Google will still have to compete with itself because Fitbit, which the company purchased in 2019, will still remain in operation with hardware products and services - some of which will also be built into the Pixel Watch.

Ultimately, smartphone software and hardware comes down to a de facto duopoly - between either iOS and Android or Apple and Samsung. Google’s Pixel, meanwhile, currently has a 2 per cent market share.

It is unclear whether a tighter controlled Google ecosystem that could properly compete with Apple and, potentially, Samsung’s Galaxy range will be better for customers, or if maintaining an open platform that offers choice to Android users but allows Apple to compete essentially unfettered is superior. Whichever direction the software giant decides it wants to take, one thing is certain: it has a long way to go to grow its ecosystem.

This article was amended on 17 May 2022. The article initially contained a claim by Mr Sullivan that the Pixel Watch would work with iPhones. However, following publication Google contacted us to say that this is not the case.

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