Pixel C: Is Google ‘Seizing Control’ of Android on PC’s?

Published on Author Eli Fennell

Pixel C by Google

At the Google Nexus Event 2015, Google unveiled the newest and most surprising member of their Pixel series of Personal Computer: the Pixel C.

Whereas previous Pixels were Chromebooks, the Pixel C is a convertible Android tablet with a magnetically-attached bluetooth companion keyboard, positioning it as Google’s answer to the Microsoft Surface and Apple iPad Pro.

Pixel C is Google's answer to the Microsoft Surface and Apple iPad Pro.Click To Tweet

This, despite the fact that the Nexus series of tablets are pretty long-in-the-tooth, and thus it would have seemed logical, especially at a Nexus Event, to add the device to the Nexus family.

I believe there’s a good reason, though, why the newest tablet from Google is a Pixel, rather a Nexus.


It’s All About Control

(And Yes, Android Won and Chrome Lost)

Google chose Pixel over Nexus for their new tablet because they don’t trust their hardware partners.

Google chose Pixel over Nexus for the C because they don't trust their hardware partners.Click To Tweet

Nexus is a reference for other Android smartphones or tablets, especially those made by their OEM partners in the Open Handset Alliance, an alliance of companies who agree to certain terms for licensing Android, and in exchange become partners with Google in developing Android, which not only helps both sides build better devices, but also earns partner companies special privileges like early code access, development support, and a chance to become the next Nexus maker.

Nexus in particular is a reference device for a new version of Android, Google’s way of both building their Android software to better fit the hardware, and of gently encouraging other OEM’s to build devices of similar or higher quality and capabilities (it also gives software developers a reference to work with for testing apps).

As we all know, the quality of partner devices on the market can vary significantly compared with the reliability of the Nexus brand.  Often the majority of devices on the market are running older versions of Android, which are long delayed in receiving updates to the operating system, if they ever do.  Buying Android can be a crapshoot, and Google has little control over that.

In addition, Google allows their partners, and anyone who uses Android with Google’s Apps to build a phone or tablet, to ‘tinker’ with the User Experience, adding their own ‘skins’ and bloatware, until at times two Android phones or tablets from different hardware OEM’s running the same version of Android can look and feel very, very different from one another.

A convertible Nexus, therefore, would have committed Android to officially entering the PC market in a manner similar to how it entered smartphones and tablets: a Nexus device for reference, but beyond that a proliferation of devices drastically varying in version and quality on the market, covered with skins like Samsung’s Touchwiz, and generally doing as well as Android convertibles have always done: not well.

Perhaps the smartphone market and the tablet market have tolerated this kind of fragmentation, but the PC market is established with mature players like Windows and OS X, which receive regular updates and sport a consistent-look-and-feel sans ‘skins’.  PC users are more demanding than smartphone owners.

PC users are more demanding than smartphone owners.Click To Tweet

A Pixel, on the other hand, has always been a reference for devices made by their Chromebook partnership ecosystem.  Pixels, and all Chromebooks, are kept always-updated (for even longer than Nexus devices in fact, 60-months versus 24-months), and Chromebooks all sport a consistent look-and-feel, with the User Interface the same from one device to the next.

Chrome OS has clearly been Google’s favorite for the PC market… until now.  During the Sneak Speak, Google noted that the Pixel C, “like other Pixels”, would receive updates on a 6-week cycle.  They were pretty clear in how they phrased it: like other Pixels.  Other Pixels, though, aren’t Androids, they’re Chromebooks, and they receive updates to the Operating System itself every 6-weeks.

Nexus devices do receive updates to new versions of Android during their support period, but nothing like the 6-week update cycle of a Chromebook.  It is possible they were referring to the 6-week update cycle for most of Google’s core Android apps, but the way they said it suggests otherwise.

Assuming they meant it the way they said it, that the Pixel C is kept always-updated like a Chromebook, this would suggest that the Pixel C will be using a wholly different update system than Nexus devices.  If Google has found a way to update an Android tablet with the same 6-week cycle as Chromebooks, this would allow them to deliver the same sort of comprehensive and ongoing update support offered by rivals Microsoft and Apple for their PC’s.

This, again, is quite different from the sort of update experience mobile users have been accustomed to, but seems requisite for any serious player in the personal computing market.  This could allow them to launch a new type of Android partner program, one for convertible devices and other types of Android ‘PCs’, requiring their partners to leave the User Interface stock and ensure their devices can receive regular updates directly from Google.

This is the way it should be.  There is no such thing as a Chromebook ‘skin’, and all Chromebooks are kept always-updated during their support period, and the system works.  Google could and should require partners wishing to build true Android ‘PC’s’ to adopt a similar approach.

This would not be the first sign we’ve seen of Google tightening their control over the Android ‘Experience’.  Android Wear and Android Auto also give Google control over interface design and other aspects of the user experience and update cycle they never enjoyed in the smartphone and tablet markets, thus avoiding the problems those have experienced.  It shouldn’t be surprising that Google would use their move into the PC market with Android to assert a similar type of control.

As to where this leaves Chrome OS, Google itself mentioned it during the event only while mentioning its huge success in the Education Market (where, they note, Chromebooks will soon outnumber all other computing devices), with an aspirational mention of the Enterprise Market tacked on.  Chromebooks are a perfect fit for the education market, and with more enterprise computing moving to the cloud, it may have a strong future in that market as well.

However, it seems clear that they don’t consider it their strongest horse in the consumer race, which to be fair it isn’t, enjoying success almost entirely at the lowest low end of the market.  It probably has a niche for a super-secure, cloud-focused, drop-dead-simple ‘thin client’, and will continue to serve the company in that niche, but the center of Google’s gravity now is Android as surely as Windows is for Microsoft, especially with Microsoft apps finally joining Google apps in supporting Android..

Bringing Android to the PC, therefore, was no longer a question for Google of ‘If’, but rather of ‘How’: in the same mad free-for-all that sadly churned out new Android phones and tablets best fit to become paperweights by the minute (and some good devices, to be sure, even some great ones, but too few of these), creating fragmentation, security nightmares, and user confusion, or with the consistent, always-up-to-date approach embodied by Chromebooks?

Bringing Android to the PC was no longer a question of 'If', but 'How'.Click To Tweet

It appears Google has chosen the latter.