Pixel phones and the birth of Bizarro Google

Google's setting the stage for a major hardware announcement in October, but you don't have to wait til then to see some serious signs of change.

Pixel Phones - Google

It's something that, by all counts, should feel familiar: the annual ritual of Google unveiling its latest flagship Android phones.

But this year, something feels decidedly different. Look closely, and it's obvious: This isn't the same Google we've come to know over these past several years.

If you were watching network television last night, you got the first official whiff of what I'm talking about. During a big night in primetime TV, an enigmatic ad showed up -- a spot in which a context-free box slowly transformed from a search bar into the shape of a phone, with "Oct. 4" and the Google logo beside it.

And that was it: no product name, no specific info, nothing else beyond the mysterious morphing box and the October 4th date.

Of course, that was enough to make those of us who follow Android news closely raise an eyebrow and/or appendage. The reason? October 4 has long been rumored as the date Google would take the wraps off its new hardware goodies, including its 2016 flagship phones. (And sure enough, around the same time the ad aired, Google sent out invites to members of the media for an event on the 4th and simultaneously launched a cryptic teaser website at madeby.google.com.) The same info is even now appearing on prominent billboards in New York City.

It's easy to zone in on the obvious news peg here, but hang on: The medium Google has chosen for this campaign speaks louder than any surface-level message.

Think about it: Google's flagship phones are traditionally aimed more at Android enthusiasts than the general public -- at people enough in the know to understand the differences between a Google Android device and a device that's sold and supported by a third-party manufacturer. At people who care about things like an optimal user experience and reliable ongoing software upgrades. At people who are comfortable buying their phones unlocked from a website as opposed to getting more broadly known devices by more traditional means.

You don't spend beaucoup bucks on primetime TV ads to reach that audience -- especially at this phase in the process, when all you're doing is teasing an upcoming product announcement. Google product announcements tend to be pretty low-key. They're typically a far cry from the theatrical productions put on by the likes of Apple or Samsung -- and they sure as hell aren't advertised this prominently to the general masses.

Like I said: Something here is decidedly different. It's like we're watching a Bizarro World version of Google, where up is down and night is day.

And that trend will almost certainly extend far beyond this initial tease. Google is widely expected to ditch its usual Nexus branding in favor of the "Pixel" name for this year's phones, which -- as the teaser site's address seems to corroborate -- suggests the devices will be presented as wholly Google-made products.

On a philosophical level, at least, that's a noteworthy change from what we've come to know from the company's flagship program. Though they were undeniably Google products through and through, Nexus devices were always created in collaboration with a rotating cast of manufacturers, who (on some level) shared the branding for the hardware production. By taking full credit for the devices and portraying them as "made by Google" -- period -- Google is framing the products in a very different light.

And if this initial ad push is any indication, the company won't be shy about marketing that heavily to the general public.

Pixel phones and the bigger picture

We probably shouldn't be surprised to see this sort of shift taking place. After all, Google hired former Motorola chief Rick Osterloh earlier this year with the goal of creating a new division that'd "unify the company’s disparate hardware projects," as reports at the time explained. And -- you guessed it -- those projects included Google's flagship Android phone line.

Maybe ditching the Nexus brand, which has indicated a million different things over the years and has never really had a clear or consistent meaning, is an early step in Osterloh's plan for unification. Sure, Pixel's been a relatively niche brand so far, but it's had a crystal-clear focus from the start: Its name indicates a high-end product created and supported by Google, with no third-party meddling and only the company's own vision for how its software should work.

And truthfully, though Nexus devices were ostensibly produced with the support of various hardware partners, all signs suggest Google was increasingly the driving force behind their designs and strategies. Rumors also point to this year's new Pixel phones as being manufactured by HTC, so the new arrangement may be quite similar to the old in actuality and different primarily in presentation.

Even on the software front, Nexus phones haven't represented a "pure Android experience" so much as they've represented a "pure Google Android experience" for quite a while now. So while many are expecting the new Pixel phones to feature extra software flourishes beyond the bare-bones base operating system, that's really not that far removed from what the last few Nexus devices have provided. At the end of the day, it's Google's end-to-end vision for how Android should look and function -- at the time of the device's launch and onward into its lifespan -- regardless of what name is attached.

The meaningful pivot appears to be with what Google wants these devices to represent -- and how and to whom it intends to market them. Those are considerations that have never felt like major focuses for Google in the past. But the times, they are a-changin'. And while Google likely isn't looking to turn a major profit directly from selling phones like these, the company clearly has a reason for rethinking its approach and trying to reposition how its product line is perceived.

The true test will be how well Google manages to deliver -- and that's something we'll have to wait a few more weeks to find out.

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