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Google's getting serious about building its own iPhone

Google's getting serious about building its own iPhone


To compete with Apple, Google has to become Apple

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Google Pixel
Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

When Google curtailed its Nexus program last year in favor of the Pixel, many commentators dismissed that as merely a rebranding exercise to make the latest thing feel fresh. I was in the minority that bought into Google's promise of a fundamentally different approach that would signal a direct challenge to Apple's iPhone, but the Pixel was still just the beginning. What we're seeing in recent times, in the ever-swirling rumor mill and through Google's hiring of new engineers, indicates the depth of Google's commitment to taking on Apple at its own game.

Google wants to own its supply chain just like Apple does

I wrote about this at length back in October: the big difference for Apple isn't just software, hardware, or customer service, it's all of those combined. Apple's unmatched strength is in the integration of all the important aspects that go toward building up a satisfying user experience, and it's long been true that the only company that could hope to match Apple was Google, owing to its dominance on the software front with the Android OS. The Pixel showed that Google was willing and able to produce a premium, uniquely differentiated phone (the Pixel camera remains unmatched, many months later), but it obviously wasn't the finished product of Google's grander project.

Apple's hardware lead is built atop a tight control, often monopolization, of its component supply chain. That's exactly where Google looks to be headed, with recent rumors and leaks indicating that the Mountain View company is working hard to secure a reliable source of OLED displays for a presumed Pixel successor with minimal screen bezels in the same vein as the Samsung Galaxy S8 and LG G6. That's why indications of an LG-produced Google phone for later this year make so much sense: it's not impossible for Google to still use HTC as its manufacturing partner and source panels from LG Display (which is nominally independent from LG Electronics), but it's more complicated than just going all-in with the Korean supplier.

Just like Apple, Google commands vast reserves of cash that it can deploy to help smooth out its supply deals, and that's exactly what its reported investment in LG Display is building toward. If the original Pixel was a trial run to test out what it's like to source and assemble all your own components, Google's big lesson from it was that demand for its phones will be high — and disappointment in the event of shortages would be even higher. Unlike Apple, Google doesn't yet have the promise of enormous unit sales to dangle as a carrot in front of potential suppliers, but that is liable to change dramatically with this year's Pixel, which would presumably enjoy much wider distribution and marketing than the original.

Google is literally hiring Apple engineers to build its mobile processors

Two things were revealed yesterday: one is that Google is designing its own system on a chip (SoC) for future mobile devices, and the other is that the lead architect for that project is a man named Manu Gulati, who, until very recently, had been a senior engineer at Apple. Both of these are massive developments, showing that Google won't be content until it has maximum control over every aspect of its smartphone — exactly the same goal that Apple pursues with every new generation of iPhone — and furthermore underlining the level of ambition by poaching away someone who would surely have needed a lot of incentive to leave a job at Apple.

The SoC is the processing heart that powers the vast majority of functions of any modern smartphone, tablet, or smart speaker. Qualcomm's Snapdragon is the most famous and widely used example, Samsung's Exynos is a comparable competitor, and Apple's A series of SoCs are the current gold standard, delivering unmatched performance and efficiency. If Google is determined to not be dependent on another company's whims or fortunes, having its own SoC is an essential part of its future business as a mobile hardware vendor.

The current Pixel is built around the Snapdragon 821 chip — its speed and feature-rich architecture contribute to the excellent Pixel camera — but the instructive example for Google to beware is the Snapdragon 810. Qualcomm had a ton of overheating issues with that piece of silicon, sufficient for Samsung to skip using that chip at all in its Galaxy S6, and Google can't afford to find itself in a similar situation with the Snapdragon 845 or whatever there is down the line. So Google is now building its own SoC, as fully evidenced by its litany of job listings attesting to that ambition.

Integration always wins

Beside freeing itself of the unpredictability of relying on other companies for critical components, Google's effort to control all the hardware inside its future devices will help it create more tailored, custom solutions. For instance, look at the way that notifications on the Samsung Galaxy S8 are signaled with a pulse of blue light tracing its way around the edges of its almost bezel-less display — that's nowhere near as impressive on a phone without the S8's sleek design. The coherence and synergy that can be drawn from hardware and software designers working in concert is best demonstrated by Apple, naturally, but I can envision future Google devices that have custom processing modules specifically to power Google's magical camera algorithms. How much better and faster would the Pixel be if its internal components were each designed for specific tasks instead of built to fulfill a generic set of requirements?

We don't know what difference a Google SoC would make to future Pixel phones, but it's obvious that Google is determined to find out. It's probably safe to presume Google is doing similar work to lock down its supply chain for less glamorous parts, like batteries and vibration engines and so on, and not all of it will be ready to debut by this year's end when the Pixel successor comes out. In fact, it's a practical certainty that Google's mobile processor is years away from making its debut in a consumer product, but that just goes to underline that Google is in this for the long haul. The Android maker has decided that building its own version of the iPhone is the best way to compete with the iPhone.