I have been looking forward to the Google phone announcement with anticipation from the moment I heard about it several weeks ago. I have no interest in switching to Android. But when the only platform competitor to Apple decides to go full Apple and compete on hardware, it is worth taking notice.
Google has had a long time to figure out how they would like to differentiate. They have had to stand by with embarrassment while partners like Samsung and others positioned Android phones as shameless iPhone wannabes. Surely, the one thing Google would do if they were in control of the entire stack is to create a distinct, hardware design language.
Much to my disappointment, they didn’t even try.
We’ve been here before
The iPhone is not just iconic. It is become the reference design for the entire smartphone industry, just as their laptops are reference designs for the laptop industry. The following image is a prototype of the first Android phone by Google before the iPhone was announced:
What they actually produced by way of hardware partner HTC was rather more iPhone-like.
Early Android phones were unsuccessful. The platform did not start experiencing success until the phones started to more closely mimic the iPhone. Samsung is the one that ended up in court for slavish copying. But it could have been any of a handful of OEMs at the time.
The iPhone was an AT&T exclusive. Android became the iPhone for Verizon. The way google responded to the iPhone was to enable its partners to make close copies of the iPhone, and indemnify them with questionable software patents.
Google and its partners realized that they had to make smartphones that looked and acted like iPhones. They had no chance of succeeding if they couldn’t transform the iPhone into an industry reference design. Otherwise, they couldn’t win. Despite losing battles in court, they ultimately won the war. The iPhone would become the reference design for almost every other phone maker. It still is to this day.
The way the industry won the rhetorical battle was by referring to the iPhone as merely a rounded rectangle. Reducing the iPhone trade dress in this way, they declared that Apple could not patent geometric shapes. At the end of the day, all smartphones were just rounded rectangles. They said this with a straight face as if there was nothing more to smartphone design.
So when leaked images of the Google Pixel started hitting the net, the first reaction was that it looked like an iPhone. Even Android supporters recognized the fact. But they once again reduced the similarity to being just another rounded rectangle.
But this is where they made a bit of a rounding error. First, there is no reason to round the corner at all. But if you choose to do so, there is no reason for one company’s rounded corners to be rounded at exactly the same point and in the same way as another. Look closely, and you will notice that most Android phones do not have the same rounding as the iPhone.
Google’s rounding error is that, at least in pictures, they made the Pixel to have the same placement and degree of rounding as the iPhone. In silhouette, the Pixel looks just like the iPhone 6 Plus and beyond. The only way to do that is to use the iPhone as a template.
One size fits all
It doesn’t stop with the rounded corners. Google has determined that nearly all of Apple’s choices regarding size are also a part of the industry template. The Pixel XL has a 5.5” display: a size practically unknown before Apple announced the wildly successful iPhone 6 Plus.
Not only did google take inspiration from the iPhone for the screen size, the iPhone apparently also has the perfect forehead, chin, and bezel sizes as well. While companies like Samsung have figured out different formulas for those parts, Google chose to go with proportions that are visually indistinguishable from the iPhone. The similarity doesn’t stop there.
Location, location, location
Even the Pixel’s areas of differentiation ape iPhone design decisions, especially those regarding placement of certain elements. The iPhone 6 and iPhone 6s have those dreaded antenna lines across the back. No one likes them, except for Google. They included an antenna line across the lower portion of the Pixel that seems to be in the exact place as the one on the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6s.
If they had to have an antenna running horizontally across the back of the phone, it could have been placed almost anywhere. But the optimal place is apparently wherever Apple placed theirs. That is not the only similar placement choice.
The Pixel rear camera assembly seems to be exactly where the iPhone rear camera is placed. And it is spread out to take up almost exactly the same amount of space.
The fingerprint scanner is on the back of the Pixel. But you will notice that the scanner is in exactly the same place as the Apple logo, and is about the same size. Coincidence? How about this: The Google logo on the back of the phone is in the exact same spot as the word iPhone writen on the back of the iPhone.
Conclusion: Designed by attorneys
Paul Miller at The Verge wrote, Google announced an iPhone, a Gear VR, an Echo, and an Eero. All of these are existing products made by other companies. Paul’s point is that Google did not actually create anything new. They just branded their version of popular initiatives from other companies. I am neither alone nor first in making these observations.
I imagine the Pixel phones had a single designer tasked with making a product that looked as much like the iPhone as possible, and a room full of attorneys to be sure the phones were court-proof. They succeeded. Apple will not sue Google over these phones. There are more than enough differences that keep the copying from being actionable.
There are also some genuinely interesting initiatives introduced with these phones. I wish I could be excited about them. But all of my excitement drained when I realized how much Google just phoned in the design by copying Apple… again… with HTC as a hardware partner! History just keeps repeating itself.