Google's Android 11 message: No other phone will be as good as a Pixel

Google is leveraging its software advantages in a big way.

pixel android 11
Michael Simon/IDG

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Ever since Google launched the first Pixel phone in 2016, its main appeal, even more than the camera, has been the delivery of Android updates before every other phone. From security patches to full version releases, Pixels are consistently at the front of the line, forcing other phone makers to catch up.

Many of them have come close. Earlier this year Samsung was able to match Google’s speed with a few security updates, as well as a guarantee of three generations of updates for most new Galaxy phones. OnePlus and Oppo have already launched near-final public beta previews for Android 11, and One UI 3.0 is starting to roll out to developers. Budget phones are now launching with the newest version of Android on board.

But even if Samsung or LG had managed to launch their own stable Android 11 updates alongside the Pixel earlier this week, S20 and Velvet users would have still gotten short shrift. Google has opted to reserve some of Android 11’s most interesting features for Pixel phones, with no indication of when or if they’ll ever arrive on other phones.

Here are the features you’ll only get on Pixel phones:

  • Live View with Location Sharing in Google Maps lets you see how far away friends are, and the quickest way to get to them.
  • Smart replies offer suggestions generated on the device when using chat apps.
  • App suggestions rotate the bottom row of icons throughout the day so your home screen shows what you need.
  • New buttons on the Overview screen make taking screenshots and selecting text easier.
  • Smart folders let you group apps by theme so you can access them more quickly.

These aren’t mind-blowing features, but they're part of a trend Google started with its quarterly feature drop last year, For example, Pixel phones received Android 11’s new multi-faceted power menu long before other phones. The life-saving Personal Safety app’s emergency alerts are still nowhere to be found outside of Pixel phones, nor is the excellent Recorder app. The Clock app’s Bedtime features, which were enabled in June on Pixel phones, only just arrived on other Android 10 phones in August.

android 11 pixel first IDG

Some of the best new features on Android 11 either started on, or are exclusive to, the Pixel.

It’s not like Google is trying to hide it. Just hours after Android 11 landed, Pixel owners received an email touting not just Android 11 but also “new features that hit Pixel first.” A day later, the Made by Google Twitter account proudly tweeted four of the Pixel-only features.

That leaves chat Bubbles, revamped media controls, and wireless Android Auto as the tentpole features for Android 11, and they pale in comparison to what iPhone users are getting in iOS 14. Without the Pixel-exclusive features, Android 11 is shaping up to be the dullest version update in years. Which is exactly how Google wants it.

Pixel leverage

Of course, there’s nothing stopping Android OEMs from ripping off these features from the Pixel and adding them to their own Android 11 skins, but that’s not the point. When we buy an Android phone, we expect to get access to Google’s latest innovations. More and more, you’re not getting them unless you own a Pixel.

There’s no reason to deny other phones these relatively basic but still important features, other than Google’s desire to position the Pixel as a premium experience. Camera features that are dependent on algorithms and AI are one thing, but now Google is siphoning off features that aren’t hardware- or processor-dependent for Pixels, while the rest of the Android community waits to see when Google decides to deliver them to the masses. That’s an advantage no other OEM has, no matter how much you pay for a Galaxy Note 20 Ultra.

android 11 logo Michael Simon/IDG

Android 11 won't be as good on another phone as it is on a Pixel.

In fact, the message seems to be just that: Why pay more for a phone with fewer features? The $349 Pixel 4a and $499 Pixel 4a 5G appear to be the start of a cheaper Pixel push, with the 5G Pixel 5 rumored to start at an even lower price than the $799 Pixel 4. That would make it about half the price of the S20 Ultra for the best Android 11 experience on any phone. Google has switched from selling hardware to software with the latest Pixels and Android 11, and it could put its competitors and partners in a tough spot.

It’s just a matter of time until Google ups its Android guarantee to four or five years to match up better with the iPhone. As more Android features remain exclusive to the Pixel, it could make Google’s phones more attractive to users, especially at lower prices. Samsung and the rest of the Android community have worked hard to keep pace with Google. But by changing the game, Google might make it impossible for anyone else to win.

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