The Pixelbook Go isn’t actually out and available yet, but what we do know from leaks and expect from the Chromium Repositories can inform quite a bit about this upcoming Chromebook from Google. In the newest iteration of a #madebyGoogle Chromebook, it seems we’re moving past convertibles, detachables, tablets and pens and making a full circle back to the humble clamshell. While it may feel a tad disappointing for many, I’d like to tell you why this move might just make a whole lot of sense.
To do that, we need to take a quick stroll back through the history of Google’s previous hardware efforts in both the phone and Chromebook spaces. Let’s start with phones. There will be many of you reading this right now that know all about the Nexus years, but likely many that have no idea about it at all. For those of you who aren’t familiar, Google’s start in the phone business was all about Nexus branding for many, many years.
Starting with the Nexus One, Google looked to hardware partners to manufacture a pure, untouched phone for them to display the cutting edge of Android on. The idea was to show up each year with a new Nexus phone that had no carrier or manufacturer bloat and housed the latest version of Android. Geared at tech enthusiasts and developers, the point of the program was to show everyone where Android was headed for the year and, at times, take a bit of a design risk to display that direction.
All in all, the Nexus line never sold well and wasn’t really meant to. It was meant to push development, encourage ideas, and showcase Android as the platform was growing in pretty large leaps and bounds in those years. As the Android has settled in and began to be more about refinement over the past few years, a transition was needed, and the Pixel line of phones was born. Instead of trying to push boundaries with a new concept every year, Google decided it was time to settle down and start actually trying to sell phones. After all, the Nexus line was meant to push development forward and if you look at the landscape of Android phones at this point, there’s no lack of new ideas and concepts out there. Put simply: Nexus did its job.
In contrast, the Pixel phones have never been about pushing boundaries, cutting-edge hardware, or futuristic design. And while they’ve collectively sold better than the Nexus phones ever did, sales numbers haven’t been great until the cheaper Pixel 3A and 3A XL hit the scene. We’ll see what the Pixel 4 does from a sales perspective, but it seems clear that Google isn’t going to show up with a phone this year that is trying to break a ton of molds. Sure, motion detection will be a cool, new UI feature, but Google is largely still playing the iteration game with Pixel 4 and I don’t see that strategy changing. Google needs to focus on refining their phones to deliver great experiences, not on pushing boundaries with experimental features. That is the real difference in the Nexus vs. Pixel approach.
A Similar Pattern
What we could be seeing in the Chromebook space feels oddly familiar if you think about it. Google has spent their years in the Chromebook market as the visionary leader, constantly building devices that push Chrome OS into new spaces and territory. I love that approach and I love that each year we dig around, wondering exactly what Google is going to do with its in-house Chromebook. But just like Android, Chrome OS now has all sorts of manufacturers taking up the mantle of creative ways to leverage Chrome OS in hardware.
Google’s Nexus approach to Chrome OS gave us devices like the original Chromebook Pixel, Pixelbook, and Pixel Slate. With the original Chromebook Pixel, people thought Google was crazy to build a premium, expensive Chromebook, but Google wasn’t building them to sell like crazy. They were showing manufacturers what a future of well-built, touch-enabled Chromebooks could look like.
The Pixelbook was the harbinger for Android apps, folding designs and pen input on Chrome OS, and you can see its effect everywhere in the Chromebook landscape now. The Pixel Slate, flawed as it is, was Google showing that Chrome OS could work as a tablet OS, too. It’s taken nearly a year, but Chrome OS is better on a tablet at this point than it has ever been and the market is ready to introduce more tablets and detachables than ever before. The point? Google’s more-exploratory hardware has reaped some long-term benefits for the platform, but never generated real sales numbers.
A Change In Strategy
This year, it feels like Google is done being the Nexus-thinking company and is ready to take a more-Pixel approach to its Chromebook manufacturing. The Pixelbook Go looks to be a refinement of what they’ve learned instead of being a device that will break some sort of new ground. Saying goodbye to pen support, convertible hinges and detaching keyboards is, at the same time, saying hello to a new way of thinking about Chromebooks for Google. Just as the Pixel phones aren’t about pushing the market forward any longer, this new Chromebook from Google isn’t trying to be “the first” at anything from the looks of it.
Instead, this might just be the first Google-made Chromebook that gets the marketing placement and push that it needs to sell well. Though the Pixelbook has finally gained a bit of traction after 2 years in the market, no one would label it a runaway success. Most of that is due to small marketing efforts and virtual ignorance of the market pricing models. When you can get far more powerful devices for hundreds of dollars less, what motivates you to get Google’s Chromebook?
And that competition is going to do nothing but increase this year. Google seems poised to deliver a refined Chromebook experience that will look to actually compete in the market instead of pushing it this year. You normally can’t do both. You can’t be the front-runner and dreamer while actually trying to buckle down and make sales. Google has made this shift in its phones and I believe it is making the same shift in its Chromebooks. Can it deliver? Will it be priced correctly? We won’t know until we actually get to see the Pixelbook Go.
I can tell you this, however: if Google shows up with a pedestrian clamshell Chromebook with 8th-gen processors inside and puts a $999 price tag on it, they’ve completely lost grip of reality. In a world where their Chromebook isn’t the trend-setter or vision-caster, it needs to be one that attempts to actually compete. A grossly-over-priced clamshell Chromebook at this stage of the game would be a complete misstep, and I just don’t think that is where Google is headed. Either way, we’ll know very soon.