This year’s Google I/O keynote was filled with hardware announcements, which is unusual considering it’s typically a software and services-centric affair. Of these, most exciting was the news that Google plans to return to the Android tablet market next year and that it will also release its first smartwatch – the Pixel Watch – later in 2022.
Google gave a number of different reasons for the change of heart. But the 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 bring to the Pixel ecosystem in general. “I think consumer expectations have also changed over time,” said Samat. “Phone is definitely super important, but it’s also becoming very clear that there are other device form factors that are complementary and also crucial for a consumer deciding which ecosystem to buy 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 these 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 bought a Google smartphone, there’s a range of accessories like smartwatches, earbuds and tablets designed to match it perfectly. . And after buying the perfect Pixel accessory, there’s a good chance they’ll stick with the smartphone brand on their next upgrade.
It’s a similar “walled garden” approach that Apple has used (often aggressively) to turn itself into a $2 trillion company. iPhones can delegate many common tasks to Macs, which can be used to control iPads, which work best with AirPods. Apple Fitness workouts can be monitored on an Apple Watch and beamed to your Apple TV. iMessage requires you and all your friends to use iPhones. You get the idea.
Apple believes so strongly in its ecosystem that it sometimes prioritizes its walled garden over the quality of its individual products. The HomePod is a prime example of this: Designed only to work with iPhones, it would have been objectively more useful and likely sold more units if you could have streamed over Bluetooth rather than just Apple’s own AirPlay standard. But, like analyst Benedict Evans noted: At the time, the purpose of the HomePod was probably never to sell in bulk, but simply to give iPhone owners who bought it one more reason to stick with Apple for their next phone purchase.
I don’t think for a second that Google would ever plan to build the same kind of walls around its yard. The company’s core advertising business is based on operating at a scale that surpasses even a massive company like Apple, and this open approach has allowed Android to control an estimated 75 percent of the global smartphone market. For years, Google has been working 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 is probably more subtle, similar to the one 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 cross-compatible, like how ChromeOS supports running Android apps. But after years of leaving hardware to other companies, Google’s focus seems to be shifting towards a combined hardware and software approach. The Pixel Watch will almost certainly work on Android devices (iPhone support is less obvious), but I’d be surprised if it didn’t best with Pixel phones.
But now it seems to be finding the limits of this approach, not least because it clashes with the ecosystem ambitions of certain other companies. I’m talking about Samsung, the largest manufacturer of Android tablets and, since last year, the best-known manufacturer of Wear OS smartwatches. But despite using Google’s operating systems, Samsung’s devices have always led their users into Samsung’s own ecosystem.
Take last year’s Galaxy Watch 4, in which Samsung finally used Wear OS on one of its smartwatches instead of its own Tizen operating system. But while it seemed to embrace Google’s ecosystem, in practice the smartwatch’s loyalty has always been Samsung’s. It used Samsung Pay instead of Google Pay, Bixby instead of Google Assistant, and was packed with Samsung apps like Calendar, Calculator, and Contacts instead of Google’s equivalents. It can sync settings of Samsung phones and uses Samsung’s automatic Galaxy brand earbud swap system.
“If you’re a Samsung user, the Galaxy Watch 4 is an excellent smartwatch. If you’re not, the Galaxy Watch 4 almost forces you into Samsung’s ecosystem,” my former colleague Dieter Bohn said in his review.
It’s the same with tablets. When my colleague Dan Seifert tested the Tab S8 earlier this year, he discovered plenty of useful features that only really mattered to users with other Samsung devices. Galaxy Buds would automatically switch between the tablet and a Samsung phone, and the tablet could also enable the phone’s mobile hotspot feature. “After years of failing to see a good reason to buy an Android tablet, I have to admit that this time Samsung has presented a compelling pitch – provided you’re already part of the Samsung Android ecosystem,” he wrote.
Samsung’s approach neatly shows where the incentives lie for consumer technology companies today. Of course, they can design their products to integrate seamlessly with all of Google’s hardware, apps, and services. Or, if you’re the largest smartphone manufacturer in the world, you could try using some of that install base to your advantage, encouraging your existing customers to buy a smartwatch or tablet to complement their phone. And who’s thinking about switching to a Google Pixel or a OnePlus once they’re equipped with a full suite of Samsung tech?
Since the beginning of its Pixel line, Google has tried to couple a narrow hardware focus with broad software support. But ecosystems are important, and in 2022, if you don’t manage both your hardware and software, you’ll let another company do better — and maybe even park its platform on top of yours.