The real effect Google's Pixel phone is having on Android

To get at the Pixel's actual impact, you have to look beyond the surface -- and beyond the basic numbers.

Google Pixel Phone Android

If there's one thing worth remembering about Google's Pixel phone, it's that the device itself -- what we see on the surface -- is but one piece of a much larger puzzle.

We've talked before about how the Pixel is more than the sum of its parts. The phone effectively lets Google have its cake and eat it, too -- by leaving Android open to manufacturers while also providing a holistic Google-controlled version of what an Android device ought to be.

Google is giving us an option to enjoy Android at its best, in other words -- the way it intended it to be experienced, from end to end -- while still giving other phone-makers the ability to use the software as a canvas for their creations.

"But wait!" you say. "That's all fine and good, but most normal people are just gonna waltz into their local carrier store and buy the latest (non-exploding) Samsung phone, anyway -- so what does it even matter?"

That's a valid point, Paco; the Pixel phone presently makes up a very small piece of the overall Android pie. But again: big picture.

The real effect of the Pixel is something we're already seeing in reviews around the web. First and foremost, it's setting a new bar for what an Android device can be.

Take, for example, the "best Android phone" recommendation from the folks at The Wirecutter -- who in past years have pointed buyers to Samsung's Galaxy S line:

Samsung’s software has improved ... but it still has some redundancy and bugs that make us yearn for the Pixel, and it’s a couple Android versions behind.

Android Central reaches a similar conclusion in its latest "best phone" recommendation:

While the phone lacks waterproofing and expandable storage, Samsung's Galaxy S7, our former recommendation, is still two major Android revisions behind, and its software can't match the effortless polish of the Pixel.

And then there are everyday reviews of other Android phones, like this one focused on the LG V20 from The Verge:

I’ve been using a Pixel XL alongside this, and LG’s effort just doesn’t match up. Google's first phone reminds us of the wonderful complete package that's possible from a company with unified control over everything. The V20 can't do that.

I could keep going, but you get the point: The Pixel has become a standard of comparison to which other Android devices are now being held -- generally not to their benefit -- and irrespective of any sales success, that's a pretty significant feat for Google to have achieved with its first fully controlled effort. Creating that sort of mainstream-ready gold standard is something the company was never able to accomplish with its less holistic (and generally more compromise-requiring) Nexus phones of yore, despite those devices' immense enthusiast appeal.

And remember: From Google's perspective, Pixel phones have the core benefit of putting Google services front and center in a way that lets them shine (and in a way other Android manufacturers often opt to avoid). If the company can do that while also providing an unmatched user experience for consumers -- one that, from the ecosystem-wide cohesive interface to the league-of-its-own post-sales support, makes other Android devices look like second-rate choices in comparison -- well, you can see how this could become a pretty big deal over time.

For now, early sales estimates actually suggest the Pixel phones are off to a fairly solid start. A new Morgan Stanley report predicts Google will have sold about 3 million of the things by the end of 2016 and 5 to 6 million more throughout next year, generating a total of nearly $6 billion from hardware alone. (The Pixel has also reportedly done relatively well at Verizon, specifically, as well as throughout India.)

But the bright minds at Morgan Stanley echo what we've been discussing all along: the fact that these basic numbers are only one small part of the story. Per Business Insider:

Features unique to the Pixel, such as the Google Assistant, the Pixel camera, and Daydream ... plus the smartphone's deeper app integration [and] increased prominence of Android Pay ... will ultimately lead to users spending more money on Android, according to the research note.

Morgan Stanley's analysts also predict that these features could see the Pixel driving higher mobile search monetization for Google as advertisers will spend more to reach the consumers who spend the most on their mobiles.

And there you have it. The Pixel is ultimately a vessel for Google to bring its own mobile vision directly to mainstream users. That benefits Google as a company, and it benefits us as consumers who carry Android phones.

What we're seeing now are just the earliest seeds of change from those efforts. If things continue along this same path, it won't be long before those seeds start to blossom -- and the broader Android ecosystem starts looking a wee bit different, one flower at a time.

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