Today, Apple announced the iPhone X to the fanfare of hundreds of members of the media, investors, and its own employees at a large event in the company's new purpose-built Steve Jobs Theater, housed within its brand-new mega-campus. Next month, Google will announce the second generation of its Pixel smartphones, alongside a handful of other new products, at what will likely be a comparatively small affair attended almost exclusively by technology journalists. It will probably be in a nice - but decidedly rented - event space in San Francisco.
Apple will ship millions of iPhone Xs before the year is out, assuming supply is not an issue. Tens of millions, eventually. Google will be lucky to ship millions of Pixels period.
The iPhone X is an impressive piece of hardware, designed from top to bottom by Apple - down to the A11 chipset and custom OLED display panel. The new Pixels will be mild evolutions on existing designs created by Google, using parts bin solutions from Qualcomm, LG, HTC, and other companies.
Google's 2016 Pixel event was polished, but a far cry from an Apple or Samsung event - in scale or ambition
The iPhone X will have a more powerful processor. It will have two cameras instead of one. It will have wireless charging (the new Pixels almost certainly will not - they're metal). You'll be able to buy it, get it fixed, and have your questions answered about it in inside an Apple store. And every carrier store. And Target. And Best Buy. The Google Pixel will be available at Verizon (probably only Verizon again) and on the Google Store, neither of which are particularly appealing from a post-purchase support standpoint.
But for every weakness it is obvious the new Pixels will have when competing against the iPhone X that is too late or simply impossible to change - and there are quite a few - I would argue that there are areas where Google can meaningfully learn from Apple or, barring that, take advantage of its missteps with the newest iPhone.
Tell us a story
Marketing is truly the core ingredient in Apple's formula for any new iPhone. From the moment you hear Jony Ive tell his signature over-the-top design story, to seeing the ever-pleasant Craig Fedrighi get on stage and delight us with demos, it becomes very easy to understand why people line up to buy iPhones (well, at least why they pre-order them). Something about the product feels special - you really get the sense that all of Apple's know-how and energy went into crafting the device and underlying experience in a way that they're tremendously proud of.
The common refrain that Apple doesn't like to talk tech because its audience is "mainstream" is also something I've never found to be true. Certainly, Apple does not immediately run down a specification sheet or even discuss certain common facts and figures when announcing a new phone. But Apple absolutely does get down into the nitty-gritty of underlying technology when it has something it deems significant in terms of technical achievement. The camera is one area where Apple has consistently taken the time to discuss what has changed and how that has improved the experience.
Now, sometimes this can be a bit misleading - Apple is notorious for painting industry-wide, or at least already-invented technologies as its own innovations. You'll get no argument from me there, but it's still an excellent strategy. Apple does often have the benefit of things like its own chipset or camera design to legitimately stand out from the crowd, and its new A11 processor will almost certainly set the bar for what can be achieved in a mobile chip.
Google, unfortunately, will not have many of these advantages. Its flagship Pixel 2 XL will use a display panel from LG, an off-the-shelf Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor, and feature relatively modest updates to its industrial design. But given that we expect Google's involvement in the hardware development processor has only increased year over year, there are doubtless going to be opportunities, maybe if only relatively small ones, for them to craft a story around the Pixel 2 as an object and piece of advanced technology.
Google will need to tell its story primarily through user experience. The greatest strength of the original Pixel was in its unmatched software. It remains the smoothest Android phone I've ever used, and while that's nice, it's not exactly something you can sell to a regular consumer on a billboard. But that's absolutely the marketing image Google should seek to cultivate: Phones are complicated, limited, and cluttered. The Pixel should be about accomplishing common smartphone tasks in the quickest, smoothest, and easiest way possible. There are several areas where I think Google can play to its strengths in this way.
That's absolutely the marketing image Google should seek to cultivate: Phones are complicated, limited, and cluttered.
Photos, not camera
The iPhone has always marketed heavily around its camera - Shot on iPhone ads are essentially ubiquitous. The iPhone X will absolutely continue to push the camera as a major part of the product experience, and Apple will continue to trade in the myth that its cameras are superior to those in all other smartphones because look at this beautiful, touched-up photo on a giant billboard. For Google to take on Apple's quality narrative is probably folly. Does the Pixel have a better camera than the iPhone 7 Plus? In my opinion, that's a no-brainer - the Pixel's camera is still the best on any phone I've ever used from the standpoint of consistency, speed, and overall quality. But there's no way Google can change the narrative here: Apple, for the time being, is going to continue asserting it has the Best camera, because it has a marketing budget and years of consumer loyalty to ride on that reputation.
Google, though, has Photos. And I mean Google Photos - the tremendously powerful and eerily-smart cloud service. It holds an unlimited amount of your photos, forever (at original quality on the Pixel), recognizes the people, objects, and places in them for insanely good searchability, and can automatically organize your pictures based on where and when they were taken to easily create curated albums for you to dig through down the road. You can easily share albums based on who is in the photo, too. Google Photos is, in my opinion, the very pinnacle of Google's efforts to integrate AI into a product consumers will actually use. We take so many photos with our phones now, it's become nearly impossible to organize them on our own. Your phone should be doing this for you, and Google Photos isn't just aspirational, it's damn good at solving this problem, and it just keeps getting better.
Google Photos is, in my opinion, the very pinnacle of Google's efforts to integrate AI into a product consumers will actually use.
Google has pushed the unlimited cloud storage aspect through Pixel advertising, but I think there's a much better story to be told here. From the moment you double-tap the power key, take a photo with someone, and put away your phone, the Google Magic starts to happen. Your phone goes in your pocket, but that night when you get home and plug in, that photo goes up to the cloud, where Google recognizes who's in the photo, and socks it away into a label. Maybe a few months later you lose your phone on a trip, and you don't think much of it, but a year down the road you realize you want that picture to print out as a gift or just as a memory for yourself. You just open Photos on your new phone, search by the person's name, and it pops up - an utterly seamless experience from end to end. And you never even had to think about it, it just worked.
Some people might describe this as "creepy." These people are wrong. Explaining the power of the Pixel to preserve memories and make them easy to discover later is a tremendous source of potential, I think, and one that Apple doesn't quite have a cohesive response to.
Make it personal
There is simply no way Google can hope to compete with Apple on hardware design this year. The Pixel 2 XL will have relatively slim bezels and a moderately updated industrial design, but the iPhone X will move lots of units on the basis of its appearance alone. Limited supplies at launch will only enhance the exclusivity factor this year, and the high price will become a justification in and of itself: it's special because it is expensive.
The Pixels will never have the precious-object cachet that Apple has so carefully cultivated over the years. However, I think there's a strong case to be made for personalization as a feature. Some time ago, Google launched a brand campaign for Android called "be together. not the same." It was a great idea, showcasing the wide variety of Android phones and the many ways in which they could be personalized to your liking. There's no reason this can't be adapted to the Pixel under a new slogan. I won't offer options - they're probably all super cringeworthy. But that's just part of the equation.
The "be together. not the same." campaign showcased Android's capacity for personalization - the Pixels should, too
iOS 11 hasn't seen Apple embrace almost any increased control over or customization of the operating system for end users. After all, iOS is notorious for this, because not allowing people to change things means they're less likely to break them. One of the truly great things about Android is that you can change nothing, or you can change a pretty great number of things, especially when it comes to your homescreen. Showcasing the many ways to make your Pixel personal through wallpapers, icons, and launchers is, I think, a truly underexploited opportunity for Google.
Instead of trying to beat Apple at its own game - creating an image of a highly curated, minimalistic, and exceptionally sterile experience - Google should be embracing the fact that no matter how your phone looks, it still does all the same things someone else's can. Customizing your Pixel doesn't have to make it complicated to use, but it does make it uniquely yours. Integrate the Assistant home button launch action in a commercial or something - the same thing happens no matter how wild your Pixel looks. This is also a prime opportunity to push Live Cases, which Google should probably endeavor to not make out of garbage-quality plastic (that last bit is a slightly personal rant).
Google's Live Cases are a great idea that still needs work on execution - particularly in materials quality.
Assistant and Lens will be key
Siri is not very good. Siri has never been very good, and Apple really hasn't been able to leverage big data sets or the fact that it's not the single largest query engine on earth to make Siri into something especially useful. Much of Apple's software "cool factor" with the iPhone X has been centered around ARKit, but here's the thing: ARKit isn't very useful, either. Like Project Tango, it's an impressive concept that is, at the end of the day, completely reliant upon third parties to create compelling software use cases for it, and I just don't think those are going to be all that common. It makes for a great showroom demonstration, not much of a useful everyday tool.
Google understands how critical AI is to the mobile experience, but sometimes struggles to talk about it in a consumer-facing way
Google Lens, on the other hand, doesn't require any crazy AR technology to do what it has set out to, which is, to sum it up, be a search engine for the real world. As we all know, major Google search products like Lens always start out with amazing promise (see these recent demos), tend not quite to live up to the hype at launch, but eventually become much better. We've watched Assistant slowly expand its capabilities in the past year, and it's clear Google has many, many eggs in this basket - it's not going away. Lens is the truly magic trick level product, though - being able to interpret the visual world and hybridize that with queries (i.e., "what's the rating of this wine" after taking a photo of a bottle) is pretty insane, sci-fi level stuff. It's the kind of intelligence we only imagined would be possible on computers in the future, and Google is clearly on the cusp of being able to exploit it in very effective ways.
There were some good demos for Assistant during the Pixel launch - even if the reality ended up being a little messier
The deep integration of the Assistant and Lens in the Android OS and apps like the camera, Photos, and search is not going to be an easy thing to market. But the experience these products can provide very well could be. Google will have to avoid one of its common marketing pitfalls, though: promising something that seems just a hair too complicated for your average consumer to want to deal with (e.g., smart home stuff), and focus more on how these products can help make the things you already do with your phone easier.
Google should be using these products to show us why accomplishing ordinary smartphone tasks on a Pixel can just be faster, easier, and more intelligent.
In the end, Google should be using these products to show us why accomplishing ordinary smartphone tasks on a Pixel can just be faster, easier, and more intelligent. While it would be a decidedly un-Google thing to do, I really think they shouldn't be below pitting Assistant against Siri - it's the most effective way to demonstrate capability, and one that will resonate far more strongly with the media and curious consumers in an on-stage environment. After all, Apple sees fit to thrash Android's fragmentation on stage at WWDC, what's the problem with a little good-natured Siri ribbing?
A tall order, regardless
While there are strengths that Google should absolutely play to with the Pixel, my suspicion is that this will eventually be written off as Google's "tick" year to 2018's "tock." We know the new Pixels are largely iterative compared to their predecessors, and that Google is still a long way off from being a proper phone manufacturer in its own right.
The iPhone X, meanwhile, will receive more attention than any iPhone in years. The radical aesthetic is a huge part of that, and Apple will likely market it relentlessly. There really will be a severe shortage of consumer attention for the next few months - even Samsung is going to probably see sales of its premium phones flag a bit as iPhone lust gets the best of many would-be customers.
Google's Pixels don't have the benefit of Samsung's massive ad budget or their extensive distribution arrangements, and they won't even be anywhere near as visually striking as phones Samsung launched six months prior. It was already going to be an uphill battle even without the iPhone X - now it's more like climbing a vertical rock face. Still, the Pixels have shown remarkable resilience and have been heavily marketed here in the US, and we know they've had some degree of success on Verizon. The second generation probably won't make the splash the first one did, but Google has to maintain momentum this year. I think the tools are there to make the Pixel an appealing alternative to Apple's newest phone for the right buyer, and today's announcement showed that for all the hype the iPhone X will be getting, Apple is still Apple, and the iPhone is still the iPhone. It may look different, but in many ways, not much has changed.
It was already going to be an uphill battle even without the iPhone X - now it's more like climbing a vertical rock face.