This year’s Google I/O keynote featured heavily on hardware announcements, which is uncommon given that the event is usually focused on software and services. The most interesting of them was the announcement that Google wants to return to the Android tablet market next year and that its first smartwatch, the Pixel Watch, will be released later in 2022.
Google highlighted a variety of factors for their change of heart. The most intriguing of them was a comment from Sameer Samat, Google’s VP of product management, who discussed the potential benefits of a tablet device for the Pixel ecosystem as a whole. “I believe customer expectations have evolved over the years as well,” Samat said. “While the phone is unquestionably significant, it’s also becoming clear that there are other device form factors that are both complementary and critical in a consumer’s decision to buy into and live in a particular ecosystem.”
To put it another way, producing a Pixel tablet (and a Pixel Watch) isn’t only important because Google wants people to buy them. It’s also essential if Google wants to invest in the entire Pixel ecosystem. The Pixel phones themselves will continue to be important, but Google wants users to know that there are a variety of devices, such as smartwatches, earbuds, and tablets, that are meant to work in conjunction with them. After they’ve found the ideal Pixel accessory, they’re likely to stick with the smartphone brand for their next update.
It’s similar to Apple’s (often aggressive) usage of the “walled garden” to turn itself into a $2 trillion company. iPhones may delegate a variety of tasks to Macs, which can then be used to operate iPads using AirPods. Apple Watch exercises may be controlled and broadcast to your Apple TV. You and your pals must all have iPhones to use iMessage. You get my drift.
Apple is so committed to its ecosystem that it will typically throw its walled garden above the quality of its individual goods. The HomePod is an example: built exclusively for iPhones, it would have been objectively more helpful, and likely sold more units, if it had supported Bluetooth streaming instead of Apple’s own AirPlay. However, as analyst Benedict Evans pointed out at the time, the HomePod’s primary objective was likely never to sell in large numbers, but rather to provide any iPhone owners who purchased it with yet another reason to continue with Apple for their next phone purchase.
I don’t believe that Google would ever consider building similar barriers around their garden. The company’s key advertising business relies on operating at a scale that rivals even Apple, and this open strategy has allowed Android to control an estimated 75% of the global smartphone market. Google has been working for years to make Android phones work better with Windows, and Wear OS is designed to function with both iOS and Android. That will not alter with the introduction of a Google-branded smartwatch and tablet.
Google’s strategy is expected to be more subtle, similar to Apple’s AirPods strategy. When coupled with an Android phone, Wear OS is already at its best. And Google’s software is usually built to be cross-platform, such as ChromeOS’ ability to run Android apps. Google’s focus appears to be changing to a combined hardware and software strategy after years of leaving hardware to other companies. I’d be surprised if the Pixel Watch didn’t operate best with Pixel phones.
But it looks like it is reaching the limits of this strategy, not least because it is clashing with the ecosystem goals of other corporations. I’m referring to Samsung, the world’s largest Android tablet producer and, as of last year, the most well-known Wear OS smartwatch maker. Despite employing Google’s operating systems, Samsung’s products have always pushed customers toward the company’s own ecosystem.
Take the Galaxy Watch 4, which was the first Samsung smartwatch to use Wear OS rather than its own Tizen operating system. Despite the fact that it appeared to be embracing Google’s ecosystem, the smartwatch was always loyal to Samsung. It had Samsung Pay instead of Google Pay, Bixby instead of Google Assistant, and Samsung apps such as Calendar, Calculator, and Contacts instead of Google’s equivalents. It can sync settings from Samsung phones and auto-switch Galaxy-branded earbuds using Samsung’s technology.
“The Galaxy Watch 4 is an amazing smartwatch for Samsung users. If you’re not already a Samsung customer, the Galaxy Watch 4 effectively drives you into it,” my former colleague Dieter Bohn wrote in his review.
The same is true with tablets. When my colleague Dan Seifert examined the Tab S8 earlier this year, he discovered a slew of useful features that were only relevant to users of other Samsung products. The tablet could also turn on the phone’s mobile hotspot feature, and the Galaxy Buds would automatically swap between the tablet and a Samsung phone. “After years of not seeing a compelling reason to buy an Android tablet,” he said, “I have to concede that Samsung has delivered a convincing argument this time – if you are already in the Samsung Android ecosystem.”
Samsung’s strategy shows clearly where consumer technology companies’ incentives are these days. Sure, they could design their products to work with all of Google’s hardware, apps, and services effortlessly. Alternatively, if you’re the world’s largest smartphone manufacturer, you may try leveraging part of your existing client base by enticing them to purchase a smartwatch or tablet to match their phone. Who will consider upgrading to a Google Pixel or OnePlus if they’ve been outfitted with all of Samsung’s tech?
Google has tried to combine a narrow hardware focus with broad software support since the launch of its Pixel family. However, ecosystems are important, and if you don’t manage both your hardware and software in 2022, you’ll let someone else do it better — and possibly even park their platform right on top of yours.