For the last eight years Google has been engaged in a proxy war with Apple, using OEMs like Samsung, Sony and HTC to prevent its Cupertino rival from taking over the mobile space and damaging its advertising business in what was the next big technology growth area.
With the launch of the Pixel, the damage that Samsung has taken from the Note 7 scandal, the winding back of Sony’s ambitions and the disappearance of HTC as a market force Google has put itself directly in the firing line. I don’t believe that it intended to do this quite so quickly.
In the past Google has been happy to load the bullets for Android OEMs to target Apple, its a strategy that has worked well for both sides. OEMs like Samsung and Huawei have grown massive smartphone businesses with much less effort than would have been required to start from scratch. Google has been able to hide from Apple’s lawsuits, which have had to target OEMs.
Of course the arrival of the Pixel and the changes wrought in Android over the last few years likely means that Google feels confident that Apple has no litigation avenues open against it. Important, because Google can’t afford to get into a battle for user loyalty with Apple, because it knows it’s a battle it will lose.
On the other hand a battle for smartphone customer dollars is something Google thinks it can win. It only needs to deliver hardware that it good enough, so long as its software offering outdoes Apple’s. Without having tried the Pixel its impossible to say whether it has succeeded, but the signs are good for Google. Especially as this is its first shot in the war that Apple has been fighting for several years.
For Apple the close integration of hardware and software, the platform control and overall quality of the experience has been more than enough to keep it ahead of Android, as shipped by OEMs. Android coming from Google is going to be a significantly different proposition.
For Google there is nowhere to hide. It controls the whole user experience and has no partners to shoulder the blame when things go wrong. For Apple that’s business as normal, for Google that might turn out to be a bit of a shock.