With the Pixel line, Google finally takes control of its phones

The company is adopting a far more Apple-like approach to handset creation.

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With the Pixel line, Google finally takes control of its phones
Google's Pixel and Pixel XL aren't just a pair of handsets that Google's mobile division is producing with a third-party, like its Nexus devices. No, these two new phones are emblematic of a dramatic shift in the way that the firm is going to build products in the future. The division, led by former Motorola chief Rick Osterloh, is behaving much more like a traditional phone manufacturer, signing deals with mobile networks and managing distribution all by itself.

In an interview with Bloomberg, the company revealed that it's taking an approach that is similar in some ways to what Samsung and its other hardware partners have long been doing. For instance, Android engineer David Burke let slip that the company has designed a product roadmap that stretches years into the future. Burke himself concedes that he's been playing with a Google-branded handset that won't debut until fall of next year.

It's not just the designs of the hardware that Google is working on either, since the company is now building its own supply chain. The company partnered with HTC to assemble the Pixel phones with off-the-shelf components, but that won't be the case in future. Instead, executives say Google intends to build its own custom silicon, pushing out suppliers like Qualcomm. As much as this comparison will annoy some loyal Google fans, it does seem as if the company is cribbing from Apple's business playbook.

In the Bloomberg interview, Google makes assurances that its own mobile division will be treated equally to other manufacturers. For instance, there's a "firewall" between the hardware and Android divisions so that Osterloh and his team can't peek at what Samsung, LG and others are working on. The company says that every manufacturer will be treated the same, although it's telling that the Pixels will be the first to get Android 7.1 and other new software features.

The fact that Google is designing its products in-house from start to finish will give consumers a much harder decision when it comes time to upgrade. After all, Google's Pixel handsets will be made within a completely controlled production process, and should be faster and offer better features than if they were made by a third party. If the search giant does manage to do a P.A. Semi and design its own chips, then it could offer significant bumps in battery life too.

It's worth mentioning that we've been down this road before, both with Google's acquisition of Motorola Mobility and Microsoft's purchase of Nokia. Both companies had previously acted as an enabler, providing software and support to their partners in the hardware space. Google, cannily, seemed to make it clear that the Motorola deal was more of a business decision (for patents) than an attempt to out-muscle its partners.

Microsoft, on the other hand, was treated like a pariah by mobile device manufacturers who saw that they'd be treated as second-class citizens. When Microsoft went on to design and build Surface tablets, it caused further consternation and a very public war of words with executives at other companies. It remains to be seen if Google's trusted cohort of partners will feel similarly aggrieved, but I can imagine Samsung is at least considering whether Tizen is worth putting on a Galaxy S handset. We also know that Huawei has already rebuffed Google's Pixel phone strategy as it tries to assert its own dominance.

Amusingly, a 2011 Engadget editorial on the Motorola-Google deal remarked that we should "check back in three years and see if Motorola hasn't become Google's de-facto mobile division." That, obviously, didn't happen, although the fact that the former head of Motorola is running Google's in-house mobile division a few years after means that we're gonna claim partial credit.

If you needed any further evidence as to where Google sees its future, simply flip the Pixel over and look at the back. At the bottom you'll find the phrase "Made by Google," with no reference at all for the moribund HTC, which is simply a contract manufacturer for Google like Foxconn is for so many others.

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