Google's Pixel phone should come with a three-year update guarantee

For a pricey phone that's supposed to show off "the best Google experience," can't we do better than a standard two-year promise for operating system updates?

Google Pixel Phone Updates

Bring up Google's new Pixel phone with enough people, and you're bound to hear a bewildered reaction: "Wait -- it costs how much?!"

At $650 for the base model -- and all the way up to $869 for a higher-storage, plus-sized version -- the Pixel definitely isn't cheap. It isn't necessarily outrageous, either; it's priced in the same range as other premium phones, like those made by Apple and Samsung. But regardless, with decent Android devices now going in the ballpark of 400 bucks, it's a number that's sure to raise some eyebrows -- particularly among enthusiasts who are used to paying significantly less for Google's old Nexus-branded flagships.

The Pixel line is decidedly different from Nexus in a number of ways, both physical and philosophical. More than anything, Google's banking on high-end hardware and a top-notch holistic user experience to make the Pixel feel worth its cost. And to its credit, the Pixel is the only real option for people who want to enjoy Android in its finest form, without all the usual asterisks present in third-party phones (slow and unreliable updates, bloated and unintuitive software, and so on). It also features some eye-catching extras like 24/7 live support and unlimited full-resolution backups with Google Photos.

But for most of us, $650 is still a lot of dough -- especially when other phones offer "pretty good" experiences for a fair amount less.

There's an easy way for Google to combat this apprehension -- and, at the same time, to increase the Pixel's perceived value and make the phone even more compelling:

Take the device's update advantage and turn it up a notch.

Fast and reliable software updates are one of the Pixel's most significant differentiating points in the land of Android, where phones often wait months upon months for manufacturer-dependent rollouts. And with a little fine-tuning, that point can become even more meaningful.

As it stands now, Google is promising the Pixel will get all OS updates for at least two years from the date of its debut (meaning the device is guaranteed to always have the latest version of Android until October of 2018). That two-year window is pretty much the baseline expectation for any flagship Android phone today. And while it's true that the presence of speedy and reliable updates is a significant advantage in and of itself -- one no other Android device-maker even comes close to matching -- for the price Google is asking, the company could do more.

If the Pixel is going to represent the very best of Google and Android, as it's intended to, Google should bring things up a step from the baseline and make the Pixel stand out not just for its commitment to timeliness but also for its commitment to longevity. Promise Pixel owners a full three years of OS updates, Google, and watch the complaints about the phone's price simmer down considerably.

An extra year of updates would show that this is a phone meant to last -- that it really is a cut above the rest. It'd show that Google is concerned with long-term consumer satisfaction over short-term sales. It'd show that in this sort of holistic scenario, updates don't have to be a source of frustration on any level.

More than anything, it'd show that the Pixel truly is a special phone, through and through -- a phone that, yes, might be up there in price but that will give you unmatched value to go along with its unmatched user experience.

As astute Android observers may recall, the notion of going above the baseline for Android support actually isn't unprecedented. Just a couple years ago, the standard for software updates on Android was a mere 18 months from a device's launch date -- an amount of time that seems like peanuts today. Back in early 2014, I called on Android manufacturers to rethink that standard and commit to a minimum of two years. Within a week, HTC answered the call -- and in the time since then, that two-year minimum has quietly morphed into the new universal standard.

I'm certainly not suggesting all Android device-makers could or should move up to a three-year guarantee at this point. For most hardware manufacturers, such a commitment may be difficult to justify.

But Google isn't your average Android manufacturer. And given its unusual resources, its atypical business model, and its noteworthy positioning of the Pixel as the phone that showcases "the best of Google" -- complete with the big, bold promise of reliable updates -- the idea of Google setting its own bar doesn't seem so crazy.

Remember: While most manufacturers rely mostly on hardware sales to turn a profit, Google isn't looking to make millions specifically from selling devices. That's simply not the core of its business. Google makes its money by encouraging you to spend as much time as possible using the internet and thus its services (which in turn, of course, means you'll provide more data that'll let Google show you more and better targeted ads across the web).

Google's ultimate goal, in other words, isn't technically to sell as many phones as possible; it's to make the Android experience as good as possible for as many people as it can. More than anything, it wants to provide a spectacular ongoing user experience in which its own services shine.

That's a goal that, understandably, no other company selling smartphones fully shares. Even Google's previous Nexus-branded phones were built around partnerships with more traditional manufacturers who needed to keep moving units in order to remain viable.

With the Pixel, Google is in a unique position to raise the stakes on the standard upgrade promise. It makes sense for Google, and it sure as hell makes sense for the folks dropping hundreds of dollars on a high-end device.

The opportunity is right in front of you, Google. Seize it, and make this new beginning really count.

[UPDATE: Why Apple-to-Android upgrade comparisons are utterly meaningless]

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