Just a few short weeks ago we were talking about how 2016 was quickly becoming the year of Samsung. This was partly thanks to the success and popularity of the Galaxy S7 (and Edge) and partly due to the anticipation of the highly in demand Galaxy Note 7. However, much can change in a couple of secs and that is exactly what happened when the first report came through detailing that a Galaxy Note 7 had exploded while charging. Of course, this has happened before to other smartphones and other smartphone manufacturers, but this time was different. As following that first report, came the second, the third, fourth, fifth, and by the last count, there were something like 70 incidents reported to have now occurred in the US alone.
Fast forward to this week and the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 no longer shines like it did exactly a month ago. Now Samsung has issued a global recall for the Note 7, sales are halted in regions and the company could be facing multiple civil issues over the instances that have now been reported. So while the first half of 2016 was a great time for Samsung, the second half of the year has not started as well unfortunately. Which means we currently have a vacancy to fill. More importantly, this means Google currently has a vacancy it can fill.
It had long been expected that the second half of 2016 would mainly consist of the Galaxy Note 7, the LG V20, the iPhone 7 and possibly an HTC device. Forgetting the last for the moment (as although HTC has an event planned for Sep 20th it is starting to look as though it won't be flagship material), the LG V20 has been announced and while it does seem to be a solid and good smartphone (and certainly one for the audiophiles), LG does not seem to be in a hurry to actually get the device to market. As such, we still (after launch) have very little details on what the pricing and availability will be. Not to mention, indications are now pointing towards the V20 being a limited-release smartphone – meaning it won't be available everywhere – much was the case with the V10. So it is unlikely that the V20 will be the standout device for the second half of this year and will likely be much more of a niche device.
Of course, there is the iPhone 7 and that is now official. While this will inevitably generate substantial sales, it is already widely being criticized. While most manufacturers tend to add to their devices, Apple has opted to go the minimalist route and remove aspects like the headphone jack – much to the dismay of some. So whether the iPhone 7 can turn the tide on what has been a less than stellar year for Apple, also remains to be seen. While it will likely be bolstered a little by the Galaxy Note 7 concerns, the Note 7 will go back on sale soon enough – although the question remains as to whether that particular device can bounce back from its current negative connotations. It will sell though and those who had already bought one will get their replacements. But it now seems less likely to be the big hitting device it was expected to be and just as unlikely to sway those customers who are less interested in this latest iPhone.
Enter the Pixels. By some weird cosmic alignment, this year also seems to be the year that Google is doing things differently with its Nexus range. This is a range which has generally remained somewhat the same over the years with big manufacturer affiliation, limited marketing and limited releases. Some aspects have changed over time, with the Nexus range more recently starting to see its availability as a carrier-associated device for instance. But this year, for the first time, Google seems serious about selling smartphones. Like, really serious. First off, we have the immense name change. For reasons still unclear, Google has decided to forgo Nexus altogether. One line of thinking on this suggests that Pixel is associated with Google’s more high-end products and these smartphone will be adopting a similar position in the market and therefore, they are not actually Nexus devices, but are Pixel ones. In short, this is less of a name change and more of a different product. A Pixel phone is not designed to showcase Android, but is designed to be a premium alternative to what is currently available.
Then we have the absence of manufacturer affiliation. While it does seem to be largely (un)confirmed that the two upcoming Pixel phones will be made by HTC, it is also seems largely (un)confirmed that they will come baring any HTC branding. To all purposes, they are not HTC devices, they are not Nexus devices, they are new, they are high-end, they are Google devices, and they are coming. Then there is the interface. While we already have the latest version of Android, Nougat, which you can now find running on most current Nexus devices (and will be running on the V20 when it arrives), the Pixel phones now seem to be coming with a slightly tweaked version of Nougat. While it is Nougat, the Pixel Launcher, as it has now come to be known, adds a little more flavor to the Pixel phones. A flavor you would not normally get on a Nexus device, but one you might expect to see on a mainstream smartphone. Stock Android but slightly customized for a ‘Pixel phone’ experience. Which is another clear indication that (a) this is not a Nexus phone per se and (b), Google is taking the overall idea of releasing a proper smartphone to the public, seriously.
When you then factor that these Pixel Phones will undoubtedly make use of Project Fi, Google Assistant, Daydream, Allo, Duo, and the rest, it starts to become clearer that Google is not just taking the hardware aspect seriously, but plans to bring to market a very concise and interesting package. One which somewhat extends beyond the barriers of Android (the software) or Nexus (the hardware), and adopts a position as the sum of those parts – neatly fused together in an overall ‘Google phone’ experience. And therein, will likely be the major selling point for the Pixel phones. While they will offer all the benefits of being an Android phone and the wealth of the Android ecosystem, they will emulate what Apple has forever offered, a more inclusive experience. One which is not closed like iOS devices, but one which provides the best of both worlds. Much like Samsung, LG and all the rest try to do with their tweaking of Android on their Android smartphones. Which again highlights the point that this year Google is not thinking about the software experience alone, but is now somewhat thinking like a smartphone manufacturer. Which inevitably does mean that the Pixel phones will likely have a better chance than the Nexus phones ever did at making an impact on the smartphone market.
Now to be clear, a year from now nothing will have actually changed. Any smartphone released by Google in the coming weeks is unlikely to make any massive impact or instant dent on the market. By the same token, and in spite of all the criticisms leveled at Apple and Samsung, both of these companies will be on top this time next year with their next-generation smartphones. In fact, there is a good chance that both will have a point to prove next year and so big things should be expected from both Apple and Samsung in the fall of 2017. However, the logic still remains that if any company, let alone Google, was planning on releasing a high-end premium smartphone in the second half of this year, they could not have asked for better conditions to do so. In a smartphone industry which already feels very saturated, a window has been left slightly open this year with Apple turning away from an industry staple like the headphone jack, the Galaxy Note 7 having its safety issues and the LG V20 seemingly lacking in sales ambition. If Google was ever going to launch a super high-end premium smartphone to take on the industry giants, then right now suddenly feels like the right time to do it. And therein is the ultimate irony, as Google could not have foreseen the developments of this year playing out the way they did. It just happens to be the case that all indications point to Google taking their smartphone(s) seriously this year and by sheer coincidence, there is a prime opportunity for a serious smartphone from Google to be heard by the market.