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Christmas with Google Pixel

“I’m going to buy an iPhone.  I finally get to have an iPhone.” … This was my internal monologue as I left my job of many years at the back end of last year.

An occupational hazard of working for a luxury Android phone maker is that while I have used almost every Android product under the sun, the ownership of an Apple handset had eluded me.  Of course I interact with them on a daily basis.  We have a family iPad;  plus nearly everybody I know has an iPhone.

I wanted an iPhone 7 Plus for two reasons. One, I wanted the phone with the best camera.  General consensus is that this has been an Apple KSP for many years.  And two, I wanted to experience the fabled Apple user experience and its ‘superior’ app ecosystem.

Then a fly was put firmly in the ointment.  The fly in question was Google’s new flagship device, the Pixel.
The press launch came with claims of the best smartphone camera ever created.  A typically hollow statement to be taken with the necessary large pinch of salt I thought… but then tech journalists I respect greatly began to endorse this claim.
Then came a niggle of doubt over the ecosystem.  Years of Android usage have baked me firmly into Google’s. The first thing I’d be doing with my shiny new iPhone is downloading Google Drive, Google Keep, Google Photos etc. etc.  Seems a little counter-intuitive.

So the decision was made… my iPhone itch will have to remain unscratched.  The next challenge was getting hold of a Pixel, specifically the model I deemed to be the correct one – XL 128GB.  Before Christmas they were as scarce as hen’s teeth.  Fortunately Carphone Warehouse didn’t let me down!

The unboxing was a real treat.  Clean, elegant and doing the job of shouting from the roof tops, “Inside here is a premium product”.  Packaging design is a lot more difficult than it looks.  In its own way it’s as equally difficult as the design of the product… and just as important.  As important because it’s typically the first physical interaction your customer will have with your brand.

So to the phone itself, in an odd way the biggest compliment I can pay to the Pixel is that there isn’t a lot to say.  It does its job in a perfectly understated way, with no fuss, and with no issues. This is such an impressive feat to pull off in a smartphone – the product you interact with more than any other every day.  There are usually niggles, glitches, areas that cause frustration.  With the Pixel I have really struggled to find any – the hardware and software work together in perfect harmony.  I would akin it to a sporting official – the ones at the very top of their profession go almost unnoticed during a game.

The camera has lived up to my ludicrously high expectations. It’s simply spectacular. Physics shouldn’t allow such good quality pictures to be delivered from something so small. It’s hard to know where future improvements will be found.  I’ve included a selection of examples at the end of this article (no like-for-like comparisons to other devices I’m afraid).

The hardware is a treat to hold in your hand.  It’s definitely got HTC’s DNA running through it in terms of build quality – a very smart selection of manufacturing partner by Google.  I’ve yet to buy a case (a decision I hope not to regret), because I’m enjoying the industrial design as it was intended, especially the precision chamfers and facets on the sides.

I’ve been hugely sceptical of rear keys since LG introduced them in 2014, however the Pixel’s rear fingerprint sensor has won me over.  It is very ergonomic – possibly more so than the typical location under the front display.  

There are some other delights. The Live Earth wallpapers are super.  I can imagine how proud the Product Manager will have been of those.

Flaws?  I have one minor one. That’s it!  I’d have switched the volume keys and screen lock key positions around for better ergonomics. The screen lock is quite a reach for your thumb on the XL model.

To conclude, my thoughts return to my previous blog.  In that article I presented a theory that Pixel is part of a much larger strategic shake-up by Google.
The more likely scenario is that Google simply want to set the bar higher for their partners in the quest to compete with Apple.

If that was the intent they have succeeded.  Pixel is a triumph on so many levels.

(Sample photography – as shot / no edits)

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Are Google about to make it a two horse smartphone race ?

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Earlier this month Google launched a new smartphone range called Pixel.

While on the face of it this looks like Google simply revamping their Nexus program, there are hints of a more seismic change in strategy.

With Android, Google have a stranglehold on the smartphone market which is unlike most other industries or product categories.  As of Q2 2016 their global market share for operating system penetration stands at a staggering 88%.

They have got to this position with a great strategy – releasing their asset to the open source community and watching utilisation spread like wildfire;  while at the same time building OEM partner relationships in exchange for free-of-charge access to their market-leading, revenue generating mobile services.

Google have already got what they need from their partners.  The likes of Samsung, HTC, Sony, LG and more recently Huawei and Xiaomi have put Android into the hands of every 9 out of 10 smartphone users across the world.

Google dwarfs Apple statistically in terms of market penetration, but in terms of earnings it’s a different story.

If Google look at Apple and ask what is their success is built on three things leap out  – (1) A laser-focus on user experience.  (2) An ability to generate and maintain desire thanks to flawless marketing, and (3) Control… basically owning the holy trinity – hardware, software & ecosystem.

Google can surely see a unique opportunity to match Apple on point number #3.

If Google want to be ruthless over the coming years they could pull back on releasing new Android versions to the open source, and not renew agreements with their major OEM partners.  Without access to Android the likes of Samsung would be left in a perilous position, scrambling around for an alternative up-to-date OS;  leaving Google to defend their 85%+ platform market share on their own.

The fact that Google have essentially matched it’s Pixel ticket prices like-for-like with iPhone 7 suggests they’re in a combative mood.

It would be an extremely bold move, and one which would go against their founding principles, but perhaps Google have decided that they can’t beat Apple with a succession of jabs from endless OEM partners… instead they’re going to have to shape up and deliver the knockout blow on their own.

When philosophy and user experience collide

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Google was built on the philosophy of openness, no boundaries, the freedom to change things. I get that, and it’s admirable.

But there comes a point where these principles impact too negatively on the user experience.

Google’s backup & restore solution doesn’t have the provision to save your homescreen configuration.  This can be really irritating when setting up a new or replacement Android device.

The most likely reason is because Google allows all manufactures to have the ability to customise the Android launcher as they see fit.  (The homescreen is the primary element of the launcher.)

The irony is that individual app developers have solved this problem.  Nova provides a highly configurable launcher with the in-built capability to save, backup and restore every customisation and setting you can imagine.

Google would probably argue that if the ecosystem solves the problem then why should they worry.

If that’s true then why have Google invested in creating peer-to-peer encryption messaging solutions with Allo and Duo.  This feature is well served by the ecosystem with apps from WhatsApp and Silent Circle etc.

What Google should focus on is fully optimising the user experience of the bread and butter Android platform, of which backup & restore is a fundamental.

By replicating (or acquiring, if IPR is prohibitive) the Nova style solution and integrating those features into the core platform they would accomplish two things.

  1. Provide manufacturers and end users the ability to customise in-line with their founding principles.
  2. Be able to enhance the user experience for all customers, giving the capability to flawlessly backup & restore every element of their product.

Get to it Google.

Will Apple provide an upgrade path for Watch Edition customers ?

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It’s been twenty three months since Tim Cook and Jony Ive introduced Apple Watch to the world.  Meaning it’s now only one week until its successor will get its anticipated first public outing.

When Apple launched the Watch Edition alongside its range of more modestly priced wristwear they stretched their brand more than at any point in their past.  Price points ranging from £8,000 to £13,500 (today’s RRPs) placed them firmly in the high luxury sphere.

While luxury technology is a growing trend, the two sides of this particular coin have a natural conflict.  One of the traditional characteristics of a luxury product is the crafted quality which means the item will endure.  Luxury is anti-disposable.  Whilst technology, by its very nature is outdated quickly.  Technology is innovation and evolution.

A common customer request in the world of luxury technology is for brands to provide the ability for an older model to be upgradable to the latest electronics.  But this strategy is fraught with challenges – once you commit to making a product upgradable you immediately constrain your design team.

Despite the challenges with designing for upgradability, I would expect this topic to have been heavily debated in the bowels of Apple HQ.

Apple have a knack of delivering on customer experience and service, and it would not surprise me if Watch Edition customers were offered some kind of upgrade or part exchange to Watch 2 Edition.

I’m still surprised that nothing was announced or committed back in the fall of 2014 to encourage willing, but nervous prospects that their large investment would be protected.

Tag Heuer Connected customers received this type of reassurance, with a promised refurbishment to a traditional analogue luxury watch after two years.

However, another challenge Apple would have to overcome is managing the millions of customers who bought an entry level Watch.  People are not stupid, and once it’s known that a Watch Edition can be upgraded the broader consumer base would demand the same thing.

If I was Mr. Cook I would love to be announcing on September 7th that Watch Edition customers will be able to upgrade their current model to Watch 2 technology for a fee of ~£1,000.  And this Service will be available one month before Watch 2 goes on sale.

Over to you Mr. Cook.

Why Chinese smartphones are the future for Western audiences

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Three years ago mobile phones conceived, designed and built in China by Chinese brands were pretty awful.  The case for the prosecution:  Exhibit A – Huawei Ascend P2, which to give context was launched within a few months of the much loved Samsung Galaxy S4.

But like with so many other industries and product categories, the Chinese are quick learners.  In this instance it can be attributed to two interconnected factors :

  1. All of the familiar western brands, constantly pushing to raise the bar in the face of intense competition, have their products manufactured, and in some cases engineered in China.  They provided the Chinese with the perfect education on how to create and deliver great mobile phones.
  2. Without wishing to over stereotype, the thing the Chinese do best is to take something which works, duplicated it, and in the process create something just as good, but faster for a cheaper price.

2016 has seen the launch of the Huawei P9 – the first genuinely premium smartphone to be created in and exported from Shenzhen.

OnePlus have brought much needed innovation to the category with their distribution strategy, and with the OnePlus 3 they have delivered an outstanding product with a price tag nearly half that of the equivalent Samsung (£329 vs. £609).

It will be interesting to see if brands like Xiaomi and LeEco can overcome obstacles, including IPR, to successfully enter the western markets.  For Xiaomi VP Hugo Barra (headhunted from Google) that is certainly on the agenda.  These highly disruptive, ultra aggressive companies, whose strategy is to capture market share as quickly possible by creating and selling flagship products at cost (or even sub-cost), bank on generating profit later in the consumer journey through upselling elements like services.

In the end, for most of us, the basic rules of economics win out.  If someone offers you two things, largely the same, one for a third of the price of the other, in 99% of cases there will only be one outcome.

Don’t be surprised if on the back of your next, next phone there are the words, “Designed and Made in China”.

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