For the past couple of years, I’ve been a mostly happy Pixel 2 XL user, after jumping over from an iPhone 6.
The camera has held up so well that Google barely changed it in last year’s Pixel 3. Google Assistant is faster and more capable than Siri, and its integration with Google Photos means that the Google-powered Lenovo Smart Display in our kitchen is always up to date with new pictures of the kids. Being confident that I’ll get access to new versions of Android without delay is also a nice perk. And I even enjoy the new gesture navigation system in Android 10 despite the fact that it shamelessly rips off the iPhone.
Yet whenever I tell people that I enjoy using Android more than Apple’s iOS, it’s always with the qualification that I’m only talking about phones. On every other surface—from tablets and smartwatches to streaming TV players and VR—Android seems to be in disarray, with no clear direction and not much compelling hardware.
At this week’s “Made by Google” event, Google unveiled the new Pixel 4. With its new camera system, Motion Sense radar sensor, far superior display, and even more responsive version of Google Assistant, it looks like a substantial upgrade to last year’s Pixel 3—and an even more dramatic improvement on my two-year-old phone. But overall, the event only underscored how Android seems lost beyond smartphones. Even people who buy the new Pixel ultimately won’t benefit from the kind of network effects that make Apple’s ecosystem so alluring. And as Google pushes into ambient computing with smart speakers, Wi-Fi routers, and earbuds, the messy state of Android will hamstring the company’s ability to tie its own ecosystem together in a way that benefits users.
Here’s a category-by-category look at the situation:
Back in June, Google had already declared that it was done making tablets and that its hardware team would instead focus on laptops. Last year’s Pixel Slate—a Chrome OS tablet that ran Android apps and could turn into a laptop with an attachable keyboard—was a flop, and although Google had been working on a pair of smaller tablets without keyboards, it ultimately decided to scrap them.
To be fair, other Android vendors are still making their own tablets, and Google has said that it will keep supporting them. But by publicly pulling out of tablet hardware, Google has signaled to developers that it’s not particularly interested in pushing the category forward. The fact that Android 10 has no tablet-specific improvements, akin to the array of upgrades in Apple’s new iPadOS, only reinforces that message.
As a result, companies like Samsung have to shoulder the burden of building out big-screen optimizations for their tablets. Most companies won’t bother, which may explain why the Android tablet market beyond Samsung is mostly cheap hardware running on outdated versions of Android. I can’t find a single tablet running Android 10.
Compared to the situation with tablets, Google’s smartwatch situation is even worse. Recent market share data from Canalys shows that the Apple Watch dominates the wearable business with 37.9% of the market, followed by Fitbit (24.1%), Samsung (10.6%), and Garmin (7%). The only watchmaker that uses Google’s Android-based WearOS with enough market share for Canalys to mention was Fossil, which had just 4.1% of the market last quarter.
WearOS’s problems aren’t entirely of Google’s making. As Ars Technica has noted, Qualcomm just isn’t interested enough in smartwatches to develop a chip that competes with the likes of Apple’s S1 or even the Exynos chip Samsung uses in its Galaxy watches, which rely on Samsung’s own Tizen software. In essence, all WearOS watches are relying on six-year-old fabrication technology, making them slow and inefficient by modern standards.
Google was reportedly going to release its own smartwatch based on this technology in 2016 through a partnership with LG, but the product had so many problems that Google bailed at the last minute and hasn’t released any wearable hardware since.
That’s not to say Google has helped much on the software side. When Android Wear launched in 2014, Google had the right idea to focus on notifications instead of full-blown apps. But then it got spooked by the Apple Watch and made ill-advised forays into more powerful apps and messaging features. Only later, when Apple itself dialed back its Watch app ambitions, did Google realize that fitness and simple notifications are what people want after all. Unfortunately, all that vacillation has left WearOS even further behind, as Apple piles on more fitness-tracking features and easier ways to glance at information.
As a business-to-business platform, Android TV is actually a success. The platform now has tens of millions of users, thanks in large part to tie-ins with smart-TV vendors and pay-TV operators outside the United States. If you’re a device maker that wants a flexible TV platform with a decent app selection ready to go, there aren’t many other options.
But by Google’s own admission, it has let the consumer market slip away to the likes of Roku and Amazon’s Fire TV, especially in the United States. For the past few years, Google has focused too much on its Chromecast streaming dongles, which largely depend on a phone or tablet to control what’s happening on the TV. As Roku and Amazon matched Chromecast on price—and still managed to include proper remotes and big-screen menus—Google never adapted.
Google’s been saying for about a year now that it’s taking Android TV more seriously. And to its credit, it has been getting more apps onto the platform lately. Still, a long-awaited software overhaul has yet to materialize, and Android TV still lacks affordable, compelling hardware on par with Amazon’s Fire TV Stick 4K or Roku’s Streaming Stick+. By the time such devices arrive, Google will have a lot of lost ground to cover.
AR and VR
The Android platform isn’t just sputtering outside of smartphones; it’s also contracting. With the Pixel 4, Google isn’t supporting Daydream virtual reality headsets, effectively killing the company’s efforts to build an Android-based VR platform.
It’s possible that Google is simply more interested in augmented reality now, but it’s playing catch-up on this front too. Google was a year behind Apple in adding persistent object tracking to its developer platform (which, depending on where you look, is either called ARCore or Google Play Services for AR) and was two years behind on offering the kind of face tracking that Apple uses in its Animoji face animations. Even now, Google’s platform still lacks advanced capabilities such as multiface tracking and people occlusion, both of which ARKit offers. With Apple now rumored to be working on an AR headset, Google will have a lot more catching up to do.
Not quite bringing it all together
Because of Google’s struggles with tablets, smartwatches, and TVs, the company will have a harder time building a bigger ecosystem around the products it announced this week.
Consider, for instance, its new Pixel Buds, which will allow users to take calls, listen to music, and interact with Google Assistant hands-free. While a WearOS smartwatch might allow those earbuds to operate without a nearby phone—with offline music or cellular connectivity—users still don’t have any great options to choose from.
Likewise, Google’s Stadia game streaming service will require a Chromecast Ultra to play on your television when it launches on November 19. Not having an Android TV device on which to showcase and distribute Stadia seems like a missed opportunity, and the service won’t support any Android tablets at launch. (Stadia will instead support a few tablets running Chrome OS.) The Chrome OS-based Pixelbook Go will also continue to suffer from a messy Android app situation, and Google’s new Play Pass subscription app bundle is less compelling without first-class Android tablets and TV boxes.
And when it comes to the Pixel 4, all of those deficiencies in Android take a toll. Even if the phone itself is excellent on its own, anyone who’s switching from an iPhone would be leaving behind a more cohesive ecosystem of devices and services.
That’s not a major issue for me, as I enjoy straddling different platforms and keeping my hardware options open. But it is a problem for folks who just want all their devices to work nicely together, and it’s a liability for Google as it tries to sell more of its own hardware.