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Google's grand ads signal it's taking on the iPhone directly

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New name, bigger marketing, and a new focus on hardware

google billboard Vlad Savov

Google is buying up massive swaths of vertical real estate to advertise its upcoming October 4th hardware event. Billboards in the United States, building-side projections in Germany — timed to coincide with Cologne’s Photokina exhibition — and even a freaking statue have all popped up in recent days. It feels very much like the bubbling start to a high-pressure marketing campaign that’s going to boil over as Google’s announcement day approaches. This isn’t atypical for Google, which has previously dominated Times Square with its Android advertising, but the difference is that the big ads are focused on the hardware now. Hell, Google’s video teaser literally transmogrifies the digital search box into the outline of a physical phone.

How does this relate to the iPhone? Well, most things in the world relate to the iPhone in some way nowadays, but my reading of Google’s actions is that it’s ready to finally become the purveyor of true premium Android phones. You might say Google had already done that with the Nexus 6P of last year, but that phone still felt like a continuation of the Nexus line: an example for others to follow and not the Android phone that Google thinks everyone should buy. The buildup to this year’s launch has included leaks of two sizes (to cover as many people as possible), some high specs, and the termination of the Nexus name in favor of Google’s in-house premium brand of Pixel. And Google has thrown in its own extra hint with the #MadeByGoogle hashtag — to say nothing of an entire website on with the "madeby" subdomain.

For as long as the Nexus line has existed, Google has been only flirting with the idea of being a hardware manufacturer and vendor. Without it, the Mountain View company is set to throw the full force of its considerable brand cachet behind the new phones coming next month. So now Google is about to launch the best-specced, best-supported, most up-to-date Android phones just in time for the holidays. Because the category of "premium Android" matters too much to be left in the hands of others.

Premium Android is the segment of the vast legions of Android phones that actually competes directly against Apple’s iPhone. From among them, Sony’s Xperia series has been perpetually hamstrung by some fatal flaw or another (and also completely absent from the US market), HTC’s flagships have been expensive but imperfect, LG’s best has been plastic for far too long, and Huawei’s ascent hasn’t yet reached full global scale. Only Samsung was doing well in challenging the iPhone worldwide, but its Note 7 battery debacle has set it back dramatically. There simply isn’t a legitimate, trustworthy brand to put against the iPhone. Google wants to be that brand.

Apple tailors iOS to its latest iPhones, and it seems like Google wants to take a similarly integrated approach

The iPhone’s greatest strength has, from the outset, been Apple’s unmatched vertical integration. It’s not about the design, processor, software, or services in isolation. The App Store didn’t make the iPhone, the A series chips didn’t make it, and neither did Jony Ive’s considered design or the quality and efficiency of iOS. It was all of those things, working in concert — as Apple marketing chief Phil Schiller reminded us at the iPhone 7’s launch. The only way to compete with such coordinated design and engineering is to recreate it, and Google is the only company in existence capable of doing so, because it’s the only company to command a mobile app store as good as Apple’s (in fact, the Play Store is such a big deal that European regulators are investigating whether Google’s control of it constitutes anticompetitive behavior).

Read more: It's time for Google to make its own hardware

The #MadeByGoogle label is, in my judgment, highly significant here. An endless parade of leaks and insider reports has all but assured us that HTC will be the producer of Google’s new phones, which are anticipated to bear Google’s Pixel brand. But not one of those reports indicates there’ll be any HTC branding on the phones, breaking definitively with the Nexus tradition. HTC is returning to its white-label manufacturing roots, and Google is brashly asserting that it has "made" its new phones. That might sound like an overreach on Google’s part, but I can see the intended meaning: the new Pixel phones will be a cohesive experience that combines hardware and software — like the iPhone — and therefore it’s valid to say that the combined creation is #MadeByGoogle.

We should all be excited about this move from Google. The first generation of Pixel phones might not immediately wow us, but that will be because they are the first generation. The first iPhone didn’t even have an app store. But once a company takes the reins of both hardware specs and software changes, it can coordinate the two and build up a cumulative advantage, much like Apple has.

Google looks set to finally accept the responsibility that many of us thought it already had: to provide a legitimate competitor to the iPhone that didn’t have to overcome a billion hurdles just to be an equal footing. These new Pixel phones will be something altogether new from Google, and they could well set the whole mobile industry on a whole different trajectory. So yes, that’s exciting. That’s big. Big enough to plaster on the side of a building.

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