This year’s Google I/O keynote was filled with hardware announcements, which is unusual given that it’s usually a software and services-focused affair. Of these, the most exciting was the news that Google plans to return to the Android tablet market next year and will also launch its first smartwatch – the Pixel Watch – later in 2022.
Google gave several different reasons for its change of heart. But most interesting of these was a comment from Google’s vice president of product management, Sameer Samat, who talked about the benefits a tablet could have for the Pixel ecosystem more generally. “I think consumer expectations have also changed over time,” Samat said. “The phone is certainly very important, but it’s also becoming very clear that there are other device form factors that are complementary and also essential for a consumer to decide which ecosystem to buy in and which ecosystem to live in. [in].”
In other words, building a Pixel tablet (and a Pixel watch) isn’t just important because Google wants customers to buy those specific devices. It’s also important if Google wants them to buy the Pixel ecosystem as a whole. Pixel phones themselves aren’t going to stop being important, but Google wants people to know that once they’ve purchased a Google smartphone, there’s a range of accessories like smartwatches, headphones and shelves that are designed to pair perfectly with it. And after buying the perfect Pixel accessory, chances are they’ll stick with the smartphone brand for their next upgrade.
It’s a similar “walled garden” approach that Apple has used (often aggressively) to grow into a $2 trillion company. iPhones can hand over many common tasks to Macs, which can be used to control iPads, which work better with AirPods. Apple Fitness workouts can be controlled on an Apple Watch and streamed to your Apple TV. iMessage requires you and all your friends to use iPhones. You had the idea.
Apple believes so strongly in its ecosystem that it will sometimes prioritize its walled garden over the quality of its individual products. An example of this is the HomePod: designed only to work with iPhones, it objectively would have been more useful, and likely sold more units, if it had allowed you to stream via Bluetooth rather than just Apple’s AirPlay standard. But like analyst Benedict Evans observed at the time, the HomePod’s goal was probably never to sell in large numbers, but simply to offer all iPhone owners who bought it another reason to stick with Apple for their next phone purchase. .
I don’t think for a second that Google ever plans to build the same kind of walls around its garden. The company’s core advertising business relies on working on a scale that exceeds even a massive company like Apple, and this open approach has allowed Android to control around 75% of the global smartphone market. For years, Google has worked to make Android phones work better with Windows, and Wear OS is designed to be compatible with iOS. The release of a Google-branded smartwatch and tablet won’t change that.
Google’s approach will likely be more subtle, similar to the approach Apple uses with its AirPods. Wear OS is already at its best when paired with an Android phone. And Google’s software is often designed to be compatible, like how ChromeOS offers support for running Android apps. But after years of leaving hardware to other companies, Google’s focus seems to be shifting to a hardware-software approach. The Pixel Watch will almost certainly work on Android devices (iPhone support is less clear), but I’d be very surprised if it didn’t. better with Pixel phones.
But today he seems to find the limits of this approach, in particular because it comes up against the ecosystemic ambitions of certain other companies. I’m talking about Samsung here, the biggest Android tablet maker and, since last year, the hottest Wear OS smartwatch maker. But despite using Google’s operating systems, Samsung’s devices have always pushed their users towards Samsung’s own ecosystem.
Take last year’s Galaxy Watch 4, which saw Samsung finally using Wear OS on one of its smartwatches rather than its own Tizen OS. But while it appears to embrace Google’s ecosystem, in practice the smartwatch’s loyalty has always been to Samsung. It used Samsung Pay rather than Google Pay, Bixby rather than Google Assistant, and came with Samsung apps such as Calendar, Calculator and Contacts rather than Google’s equivalents. It can sync settings from Samsung’s phones and uses Samsung’s system for automatically switching Galaxy-branded headphones.
“If you are a Samsung user, the Galaxy Watch 4 is a great smartwatch. If you’re not, the Galaxy Watch 4 forces you into the Samsung ecosystem,” my former colleague Dieter Bohn said in his review.
It’s the same with tablets. When my colleague Dan Seifert reviewed the Tab S8 earlier this year, he found many handy features that only really mattered to users of other Samsung devices. The Galaxy Buds would automatically switch between the tablet and a Samsung phone, and the tablet could also activate the phone’s mobile hotspot feature. “After years of not seeing a good reason to buy an Android tablet, I have to admit that Samsung made a compelling case this time around – provided you’re already in Samsung’s Android ecosystem,” said- he writes.
Samsung’s approach clearly shows where the incentives lie for consumer tech companies these days. Sure, they could design their products to seamlessly integrate with all of Google’s hardware, apps, and services. Or, if you’re the world’s largest smartphone maker, you can try to use some of that install base to your advantage, encouraging your existing customers to buy a smartwatch or tablet to complement their phone. And who will think of upgrading to a Google Pixel or a OnePlus once they’re equipped with a full suite of Samsung technologies?
Ever since the launch of its Pixel line, Google has tried to combine limited hardware focus with broad software support. But ecosystems matter, and in 2022, if you don’t control both your hardware and your software, you’ll let another company do better and maybe even put their platform right above yours.