The Great Divergence, Google’s Android beta Separation

Android beta : Differentiation in a crowded industry is one of the hardest things for a company to accomplish. When products are so similar it becomes difficult for a company to stand out from the pack.

The Great Divergence, Google’s Android beta Separation

This is something that happens in hip hop pretty frequently that many in that industry call “finding your sound”. Finding your sound entails in just expressing yourself naturally instead of mimicking what may be popular at the time. This is frequently what happens in subgenres of hip hop, where an artist becomes associated with a certain sound and cannot shed that association. This has happened with artists in subgenres such as the Hyphy Movement and Snap Music.

This also seems to happen in film and television. Actors like Michael Richards (Kramer from Seinfeld) and Rainn Wilson (Dwight Schrute from The Office) are interchangeable in conversation with the characters that they portrayed, regardless of new projects that they take on. This phenomenon has started to happen in smartphones when it comes to the way that Google is developing its phones. By many, Android beta phones are Android phones with many people referring to them under an umbrella of “Droid” or “Galaxy” as a general term. Google is looking to differentiate itself as a smartphone manufacturer. And what has happened in the process is a separation between the Google experience and the accepted reality of Android. This is Google’s play to differentiate from the pack.

Stock Android is Dead

I remember in the days of the Nexus program, people would have the latest Nexus phone and boast that their phone was running what was called “Stock” Android beta. And what that was, was the barebones Android experience without any additional tweaks from manufacturers. This meant a faster phone and one that ran as Google intended. This was a correct view of a Nexus device as they were marketed as reference devices that for the most part were not sold through carriers.

All of this changed with the launch of the Pixel line. The original Pixel had a huge marketing push on Verizon (as did the subsequent Pixel 2) that was marketed as a simple and elegant solution with excellent camera capability. This is the moment when Stock Android beta became the Pixel Experience. Much like Samsung, LG, and OnePlus, Google has its manufacturer overlay for its flavor of Android. The company has built atop the open-source foundation of Android to craft something that caters to its target audience, just as Samsung does with its Android skin.

Android in years past was all about unique customization. The ability to make your phone anything that you wanted it to be. This image of Android is what ushered in an era of custom ROMs and tweaking of software that made many people fall in love with the platform. However, with that sort of modification, there is an opening for bugs and an experience that most people do not want to endure. For all of the jokes of the walled garden of Apple, stability is a hallmark of iOS that has caused quite a few Android users to make the switch to the iPhone. The domino effect of this has been a focus by Android phone makers to make their operating system more user friendly.

This has been Google’s focus on every Pixel since the launch of the product line. An emphasis on Google Assistant, imaging, and simply getting things done. Where other manufacturers have rested their laurels on raw power (screen resolution, battery capacity, number of camera lenses), Google has taken the approach of making the Pixel approachable. This was the case with the first Pixel, and the messaging continues as we inch closer to the release of the Pixel 5. Meanwhile, other Android beta phone makers continue to rely on spec sheets. This is the way that Google foresees differentiating its phone from the sea of Android options.

The Google Phone Versus The Android Phone

Android phones have come to a point in their development that the power that they possess cannot be overlooked. Modern smartphone processors now rival those on laptops. Samsung has taken advantage of this by implementing its DeX software that creates a desktop environment when the proper peripherals are plugged in. In an ideal world, Samsung sees its Galaxy devices as on the go computers capable of being a do-it-all device that consumers will take advantage of. This is why more power and capability is added to Galaxy phones each generation. This definition of devices by Samsung largely echoes the reality of Android outside of Google.

Android on most OEMs has evolved into a brute force display of powerful specifications. Ratcheting up storage, display technology, and storage to enhance the experience. Google has always been a software company, that is its strength. The Pixel has never been a device that has focused on being a laptop replacement. The idea of the Pixel has been to be a stress-free device that handles the duties of a phone flawlessly. To be great as a phone, as opposed to an “I can do everything” device that comes from Samsung, LG, and others.

This is the key difference in what Google is trying to accomplish versus what other Android vendors are looking to accomplish. The Pixel was always designed to be a competent phone and nothing more, whereas a Galaxy S20 or V60 is meant to do more with advanced camera modes and dual-screen capability respectively. Years ago, Michael Fisher called the original Google Pixel an “Android For Normals” and this is a perfect characterization. Google wants potential Pixel customers to not be intimidated by Android, to look at their phone as one that can easily be picked up and used. They want their phone to be like the iPhone in that regard.

The way that Google looks to differentiate from Samsung and OnePlus is through a constantly improving software experience, a camera that takes great photos in automatic mode, and monthly updates to keep the performance as good as possible. No real boundaries are being pushed by Google here except for the smart HDR capability of Google Camera. Google wants to make their own iPhone and this is what their version of Android has become. Where Samsung and the others have made moves to rewrite the formula to gain new users, Google decided to mimic the formula.

The Division of Android

Android was never meant to be like iOS. It was never meant to be uniform, as evidenced by this older ad for the operating system. Android has always been a blank canvas to allow different manufacturers to mold it as they see fit. As it stands today from an aesthetics perspective there seem to be three camps of Android design. The first is the Chinese flavor of Android that is found on Huawei, Xiaomi, Oppo, Vivo, and others. These phones use a skin that integrates many proprietary services and apps that are popular in mainland China and visually mimic the look of Apple’s iOS. These phones are loaded with features, and eventually with time seem to be a bit more bloated than others. These phones also seem to be on the cutting edge of design trends, as features like pop up selfie cameras will make an appearance on these devices first.

The second flavor of modern Android is the South Korean version which is found on Samsung and LG devices. New updates to Samsung’s OneUI and LG’s UX9 have made the visuals of these two interfaces quite similar to one another. The priority of these interfaces is to accommodate for larger displays with content presented lower than other phones. LG and Samsung will also throw a lot of extra features into their phones, but these additions seem to be more tailored to western markets than those from the Chinese OEMs.

Then there is the last modern flavor of Android which is Google’s version. The idea with Google is to be minimalistic and focus on the companies services above all else to complete the experience. Moves such as having Google Photos as the default gallery app, YouTube Music as the default music player, and Google Assistant present throughout the operating system are proof of the company’s priorities when it comes to their phones. Much like Apple, Google continues to try and build an ecosystem that is tied together by the foundation of Assistant. This ecosystem comprises of Pixel phones, Chromebook, and smart home devices like the Nest Mini and Nest Hub Max. At this point, Google is taking Assistant and the idea of a functional phone as a way to differentiate itself from the sea of modern Android alternatives.

The Wrong Comparisons

All of this sounds well and good, but why isn’t this translating to success? A recent earnings call confirmed that Google’s hardware division has not been doing well as of late. Yet most people seem to review Pixel phones pretty favorably. I think the issue lies with the fault of comparison.

The Pixel line of phones is designed to compete with the iPhone, and as such, they should be directly compared with the iPhone. The problem arises in the reality that the Pixel is an Android phone, and the natural thought is to compare it to other Android beta phones. Yet because it is designed to compete with the iPhone, the Pixel almost always loses on specifications comparisons to other Android phones. A Pixel will always have a dimmer screen, fewer camera lenses, less storage, less RAM, and so on when compared to phones from Samsung and Huawei. It is a chicken and the egg dilemma that Google finds itself in.

It seems that Google has realized the need to differentiate this branding from Android to avoid such comparisons. As evidenced by the Google Pixel 3 keynote in 2018, the word Android beta was never used. Google realizes that the Android branding is now reserved for Samsung in markets that it hopes to be competitive in. And what Google is trying to accomplish with its smartphone division does not line up with what Samsung’s current reality is. The focus on Assistant and services is a calculated one to change the conversation around its phones. Yet it seems that much like a hip hop star who rose to fame in a subgenre, Google might never be able to shake its associative reputation.

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