Google's answer to Apple's iPhone has always been the stuff of tech industry lore. Now it's here. But it's got an unfamiliar moniker.
Richard NievaFormer senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Well, not quite. It's officially called "Pixel, Phone by Google," and the search giant unveiled it Tuesday during a much-hyped event in San Francisco.
The Pixel, available with either a 5-inch or 5.5-inch display, is a grown up Google phone, meant to compete with the top brass of the smartphone world, including Samsung and Apple. It's a sharp strategic shift for Google, which has until now been content with selling phones through its Nexus program. For that, Google farmed out some of the hardware design to other manufacturers -- like LG, Asus and Huawei -- who put their brands on the phone alongside Nexus.
For tech watchers, the Pixel ends years of speculation about when Google would actually build a premium phone. The rumors started the moment Google bought a tiny mobile software startup called Android in 2005, a move that eventually pit it against Apple's iOS software for the iPhone. It prompted Apple's Steve Jobs to declare he was willing to spend every bit of his company's cash on fighting a "thermonuclear" war to destroy Android.
So when Apple announced its own foray into the smartphone market in 2007 with the iPhone, we knew something was missing, an archrival. Coke has Pepsi, the Lakers have the Celtics, Tupac had Biggie. The iPhone needed a worthy competitor, someone even more formidable than Samsung, the world's biggest maker of phones.
That's why a Google phone has been a long time coming. "When we finally decided to do it, everyone was like, 'What took you bozos so long?'" Brian Rakowski, a Google vice president of product management, said in an interview Tuesday.
Instead, we got iPhone versus...Pixel. It's not exactly epic, like Superman versus Batman (the superheros, not the movie).
Google insists Pixel is the right name for its new phone.
"For us, it's always represented the best of hardware and software designed and built by Google," Rick Osterloh, Google's hardware chief, said on stage Tuesday. That's because Pixel isn't a new name. There are already Pixel Chromebook laptops and tablets that Google designed in-house.
Still, it's pretty much an unknown brand. And that may be the point, said Dean Crutchfield, a New York-based brand consultant. For most people, Google means search. The Google name doesn't have the "panache" to carry a high-end phone.
"The reason the phone isn't called Google is the brand doesn't stretch that far," he said. "If you stretch a brand too far, it snaps."
Plus, Google thinks people will come to know it as "the Google phone" anyway, despite its proper name, a company spokeswoman said. She points out that it says "Phone by Google" on the box and the phone itself has a big G on the back. "Phone by Google" is also printed in teeny tiny, nearly illegible letters on the bottom of the back of the phone.
"People know who built this phone," Rakowski continued. "It's quite clear. We're not being shy about it."
A 'most-loved' brand
Maybe you're thinking it's unimportant to dissect a name, that it's just semantics. Shakespeare wrote, "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet." But remember, Romeo and Juliet died because of their names.
Google knows better than anyone that branding and marketing matter. Just look at the ill-fated Google Glass, which failed because, among other things, the company couldn't get the story right as to why you'd spend $1,500 on awkward eyewear. If Google wants to go up against a heavyweight like the iPhone with this new phone -- and by all accounts, it does, given the Pixel's starting price of $650 and Google's exclusive deal with Verizon as the wireless provider -- then the company needs to nail everything, including the marketing. And the name.
There are probably several reasons why the company wanted to call it something besides the Google Phone. Maybe Google didn't want to scare its hardware partners, which are still deeply important when it comes to Android, by jumping into the deep end with a full-on, branded phone.
Or, if the phone is a flop, it would be tough to give it a second try with another Google phone if the company has already played that name card.
Still, the Google name is a world-class asset. It's the most valuable brand in the world, according to the BrandZ Top 100 list, a study by the branding and advertising agency Kantar Millward Brown. Who's No. 2? Apple. And when it comes to the world's most-loved brands, Google is No. 4, according to the YouGov BrandIndex. Apple is close behind at No. 6.
Interestingly enough, the study also lists the iPhone as its own brand. It's No. 8. Maybe Google hopes Pixel will join the list.
But if Google didn't choose Pixel because Pixel could help its brand power, it could be the other way around, said Jan Dawson, CEO of Jackdaw Research.
"If Google does a phone named Pixel, and it's successful, then it makes Pixel successful," he said.
Or maybe there's something more subliminal at work here. A pixel, literally, is a kind of unit of measurement for images on a screen. On phones, pixels are the building blocks of software as manifested on a display. And software has always been at the heart of Google.
So even though you're holding a shiny rectangle in your hand with Google's signature G on the back, Google wants to remind you that it's in the business of software. Pixels, not atoms. And in fact, that's how Google executives, standing under a digital banner that declared "Made by Google," explained it on Tuesday when they discussed why it's time for Google to make its own hardware: Software and data are bigger parts of people's lives than ever.
Said Osterloh: "The rise of volume and complexity of all the information makes it so that this is the right time to be focused on hardware and software."
Watch this: Pixel vs iPhone: 5 things Google does better