Android Intelligence Analysis

Imagine an 'Android Pro' subscription

Google's missing a major opportunity to build its business while elevating the experience of its most enthusiastic users.

google android pro subscription
OpenClipart-Vectors/Google/JR Raphael (CC0)

Android Intelligence Analysis

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Fair warning: What you're about to read is pure and unadulterated longing — a "wouldn't it be nice" bout of daydreaming that, as far as I'm aware, has no basis in immediate reality and no connection to actual plans known to be in the works.

But on the surface, at least, it sure does seem to make an awful lot of sense. And maybe, just maybe, it's something we could see Google try to pursue in some way, someday.

The idea is all about subscriptions — something that doesn't sound super-exciting, I realize, but stick with me on this, 'cause it really could have some interesting implications. Tons of tech companies are turning to subscriptions as a way to supplement revenue and keep the cash comin' in, even as we gadget-carrying mammals are hanging onto devices for increasingly long spells. And Google getting in on that same sort of action could be quite consequential.

For context, last week, Samsung launched its own subscription program — an appropriately convoluted concept called Samsung Access that lets you pay a monthly fee of $37 to $48 in exchange for a current Galaxy S phone, access to Samsung's Premium Care program, and a Microsoft 365 subscription along with a terabyte of OneDrive cloud storage.

Within days of that announcement, news "leaked" that Apple could be readying a bundled plan of its own for the iOS faithful — something that'd potentially bring Apple TV, Apple Music, and other such offerings together into a single streamlined setup with a single bill attached. And Apple's been hinting for a while now that a broader plan to provide regular iPhone hardware upgrades along with access to pay-to-play Apple services could also be in the works.

The more I think about all of these developing programs, the more I think to myself: How does Google not have something similar? More than any other company out there, Google's in a position to offer something uniquely valuable — and something that'd have the potential to bring a meaningful boost to its own business, not only in terms of creating a new source of ongoing revenue but also in terms of giving its Pixel phone program the precise sort of kick in the pants it needs.

Why? How? And what would any of this even mean for us Android-using land donkeys? Let's get into it.

The 'Android Pro' proposition

First, we need to set the stage for why this whole concept could be logical: As we've talked about ad nauseam over the years, Google's Pixel devices are the only Android phones that are fully advisable for serious business owners (or anyone who cares about optimal performance, privacy, and security) to use. The reason is simple: All user experience considerations aside, they're the only Android devices that get timely and consistently reliable deliveries of both major operating system updates and the monthly security patches that complement those. No other phone-maker even comes close, and no other company within Android makes post-sales software support a priority — or even a part of its promised package.

Pixel phones also receive OS updates for a full three years from their launch date, which is a year more than any other Android device (allegedly) gets. But Google does a terrible job at marketing that fact and making average phone-buyers appreciate why it matters. And the subscription concept could be the perfect way both to elevate the Pixel phones' advantages even further and to make those advantages apparent to a wider audience.

I mean, think about it: Google controls not only Android but also a hugely popular suite of cross-platform productivity services — the Docs, Sheets, and Slides series of apps along with Gmail, Google Drive, and all those other associated entities. Enterprises and other organizations already pay for premium, managed versions of those services via Google's G Suite program, and individuals already pay for extra storage and other related benefits via the company's Google One arrangement.

At the same time, Google maintains a list of "Android Enterprise Recommended" devices — phones that supposedly meet the company's "strict enterprise requirements" and thus are meant to be optimal for professional use. But, well, look at some of the devices in the collection. There are phones like Motorola's Moto Z4, which received the current Android 10 release 189 days late — this past March, more than six months after the software actually came out. That unacceptably poor performance earned the company a big fat 0% "F" on my latest Android Upgrade Report Card.

The Moto Z4's security patch history isn't much better: According to a database maintained by the website Android Police, the Z4 went without any security updates from July to November of last year — and then got a November update that was two months behind in patches.

And that's the "Enterprise Recommended" product?! We can do better. Google can do better.

The enterprise connection

Now, Google's obviously got some tricky political waters to wade through in this domain. The company often seems to struggle with figuring how to promote its own products without overtly knocking those created by its ecosystem partners — the companies that sell the bulk of Android phones and allow the platform to thrive. It's an awkward situation with inherently conflicting goals: making Google's own wares seem worthwhile over the competition while somehow continuing to nurture and support those competing products at the same time.

But you know what? At a certain point, Google's gonna have to get over that — at least, if it wants its Pixels to move past their current small-scale status and into the mainstream conscience. And now more than ever, the stage is set for the company to start making that happen.

Building off of what Samsung is doing (and what Apple is apparently also working on doing), imagine a scenario in which Google positioned its Pixel phones as the most optimal devices for professional use and emphasized the importance of its unmatched software support — and then offered a way to upgrade an organization's G Suite subscription with an "Android Pro" add-on that'd expand the existing benefits with built-in access to new Pixel phones every two or three years as well as enhanced support for those products.

On the individual or small business front, "Android Pro" could be a complement to the current Google One program — which offers extra Google storage, Android backup capabilities, personal support, and a handful of other scattered benefits. What if you could upgrade that to a Google One "Android Pro" subscription and get a new Pixel phone every two or three years at a price that'd be roughly comparable to what you'd pay for the devices outright over that same span of time?

Given the Pixel phones' lower-than-average prices and higher-than-average value, the monthly cost for such a service could conceivably be quite affordable. If, for instance, the Pixel 5 were to end up being somewhere around the $700 mark, as folks are expecting, that'd come out to roughly $19.50 a month for the phone itself spread out over three years. And if Google allowed you to pay a touch more than that to also get all of the Google One benefits, that'd be an incredibly compelling proposition.

Heck, the company could even bundle in its Preferred Care repair program as part of the package. And it could include discounted access to services like YouTube Music or the standalone YouTube Premium ad-free video-watching subscription at a discount for subscribers as well. Everyone loves a bundle, and instead of having a zillion confusingly named services in different places, Google could streamline and encourage its most engaged users to get everything in a single spot — and to keep getting new versions of its phones over time as part of that. If Apple or Samsung can pull it off — two companies that have traditionally struggled with services and don't have anywhere near the wide-reaching value Google can offer — Google sure as hell oughta be able to do it, too.

And the enterprise could be the key to getting such a program off the ground: If Google can manage to court big companies and convince them that the Pixel line's update advantage makes it the only advisable option for serious business use — an argument that's pretty darn easy to make — it could position the Pixel as the new "BlackBerry of Android" (ahem). It could, in other words, establish the Pixel as the de facto choice for business users who require the best possible experience, the most optimal privacy and security, and an absence of the sort of data-leaking silliness other device-makers sneak into their software.

With that foundation, Google could then start selling the same setup to the smaller businesses and individual users who would appreciate those same qualities — including the all-in Google users who are already subscribing to services like Google One, YouTube Premium, and Preferred Care and would see this sort of offering as a sensible and minimal-cost-incurring step up from their current scenario. It's all about establishing and optimizing a base and then building outward from there, just as Chrome OS has done with the education market as its foundation.

Google's worked hard to find Android's place in the enterprise, but Android is a hugely varied ecosystem, and experiences from one device to the next are absolutely not equal. The Pixel line's most important advantages lie in some less tangible but supremely important areas, and if Google wants the phones to take off in any meaningful way, it's gonna have to stop tie-toeing around what really makes the devices special and start actively promoting it. And an "Android Pro"-style subscription could be the key to accomplishing that.

If you think it sounds far-fetched, consider this: Six years ago, Google reportedly considered something vaguely similar with a developed-but-never-launched program known as "Android Silver." The idea behind Silver was supposedly to offer premium Android phones that "closely adhere[d] to Google specifications" and provided a "more consistent 'Google' experience for high-end Android customers," with prompt software updates being a core part of the picture.

At the time, Google didn't have its own self-made devices and consequently didn't have a great way to pull that off. Now it does — and as the complexity of Google's pay-to-play subscription services continues to grow, this is the prime time to revive that vision and transform the Pixel into a clearly defined part of the broader Google ecosystem.

It sure seems like it'd have the potential to be a big win for Google — and also a big win for us.

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[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]

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