A bit of history for starters will put this week's major announcements by Google in perspective.
Remember Netscape Navigator? For those too young to have used—and loved—it, Netscape was the first global web browser; the leader in the field in the mid 1990s. It made a small mistake: It gave a newcomer, named Google, exclusive rights to fuel its search engine. That proved to be the first foot of the camel into the Arab's tent. By 1998, Google became an independent search engine, swiftly dominating the field. 'Google it' became a synonym for 'search on the web'. Other search engines of the nineties—AltaVista, Excite and Lycos are now mere names in the history book.
Remember Symbian? In 2000, it still remained the biggest operating system on mobile phones—deployed by handset makers like Nokia who ruled the market. Google launched Android in 2008 and in just eight years it has become the dominant OS, fueling 90 per cent of all handsets. Symbian too, has marched into history.
The Chrome browser also made its debut in 2008. While its competitors like Internet Explorer, Firefox, Vivaldi and Opera have not curled up and died, the Google-owned browser has a big finger in every pie—Windows, Apple OS, and linux.
This massive presence across OS, browser and search engine has enabled Google to give all three elements away for free and rake in the money via advertisements and services across these platforms.
So is anything left to conquer? After carving out massive chunks of the software and services world, only one remained: hardware. And this week Google has flamboyantly announced its intention to enter this last remaining arena of infotech.
On Tuesday, in San Francisco, it unveiled a pair of mobile phones—the first handsets fully designed and engineered by Google and bearing its name. This is not to be confused with the Google-sponsored Nexus phones that have been around for two years and have been made by multiple phone players including LG.
The new Google-branded phones are named Pixel and will be manufactured by Taiwanese device maker HTC. Pixel and Pixel plus, both come with 4G RAM with different storage capacity options—32 GB and 128 GB. Both models have 12.3MP rear cameras and 8MP front cameras. While Pixel is a 5-inch full-HD screen, Pixel Plus is larger at 5.5 inch. Both are single SIM devices with the new Type C USB, though they still sport a 3.5mm audio jack and a standard USB 3 port. The phones will come with the new Android 7 Nougat OS. The USP of both phones is the built-in Google Assistant. But then, we are already used to smart assistants that speak—like iPhone's Siri, Amazon's Alexa and Windows' Cortana. Pixel's batteries are good but not colossal 2770 mAh and 3450 mAh respectively, but still they promise last a full work day. The cheaper Pixel will cost Rs 57,000 in India.
Google has also launched a virtual reality headset, Daydream View, for $ 79 (Rs 5,500), a smart Google Home speaker for $ 129 (Rs 9,000) and a new version of its video streaming dongle, Chromecast, that is updated for 4K ($69/Rs 4,800). That makes for a broad swath entry into the hardware business. But it also indicates that Google now has set its sights on new goal posts—not the mass market that came with the Android browser, but the premium, elite end of the business dominated by Apple. Indeed almost all industry pundits say the new Pixel phones are a shot across the bows of the iPhone. And that is a pity.
For all its hegemony, Google could do some good because its Android OS enabled thousands of licensees to roll out affordable handsets for masses. Today, in India Android smartphones can be had for as low as Rs 3,000. The huge developer ecosystem in this country has seized the Android platform to roll out thousands of apps in multiple Indian languages, fuelling a plethora of services for the aam aadmi—from market and weather information for farmers to SOS buttons for women. The entire thrust of Digital India rests on the massive roll-out of citizen e-services on free platforms that work on affordable devices. A free Android and Chrome make that possible.
It is sad that Google, led by an Indian, Sundar Pichai, has for its hardware foray put its money and its mouth in a rarified high-end sector of the mobile business. That is meaningless to 99 per cent of the Indian population. How Pixel competes with iPhone is a matter of supreme disinterest to almost all of us in India, except a small slice of the chatterati who sport every new upgrade to the iPhone and pay the extortionate prices that Apple demands in India.
There is also another worrying aspect to the Google hardware foray: what about all those phone makers who put their faith in Android like Samsung and others who also have premium handsets in the league of Pixel? Now, their licensor has become a competitor in their end product. As a famous politician once said, there are no permanent friends...only permanent interests.
After October 13, Google can be booked in India too and will undoubtedly be bought by thousands. But will it make a dent in the phone market? Will it do anything to extend the reach of phone-based services to the mass of Indians as Android is doing? Not a chance. It will be an alternative toy for iPhone premis. I'm betting, Pixel will sell well because of the mega corporation behind it. Google shareholders will have nothing to complain except for one regret: The company said 'pass' to another opportunity to do something good and transformational on a scale only Google can. Next time Mr Pichai visits his home country and poses for all those photo ops with the Prime Minister, perhaps someone should remind him.
The latest breathless announcement of Google this week and the imminent appearance of Pixel in India remind an old fogey like me of what sturdy Britons said about American soldiers who came to their country during World War II: Over paid, over sexed and over here.