Can Google's Pixel overtake iPhone's cultural clout?

The Pixel cannot succeed simply by matching the iPhone’s technical specs, say observers. It will also need to tap into the deep-seated habits and loyalties of millions of smartphone consumers.

Eric Risberg/AP
A reporter looks over the new Google Pixel phone following a product event on Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2016, in San Francisco.

Google’s new phone won’t hit the market until Thursday, but the reviews are already in: when it comes to speed and features, Pixel has got what it takes to loosen Apple’s grip on the smartphone market.

But before it can do that, Google must surmount a much trickier and far less tangible obstacle: the cult of iPhone.

Despite waning sales in recent months, the iPhone is still a ubiquitous cultural presence, and that is unlikely to change overnight. The Pixel can’t simply match the iPhone’s technical capabilities and hope users will switch. It will also need to tap into the deep-seated habits and loyalties of millions of smartphone consumers. But will it?

When the iPhone made its 2007 debut, it opened a realm of possibilities greater than Steve Jobs could have imagined. For the first time, consumers understood that their phone wasn’t just a phone, but a true miniature computer. Before that moment, even high-tech devices like the Blackberry were mostly marketed to executives as a way to send emails on the fly.

Apple’s timing couldn’t have been better. The company, perhaps unknowingly, introduced a model for future smartphone manufacturers to emulate. Microsoft and Samsung eventually joined the party, introducing high-end phones with comparable user interfaces and superior processing capabilities. But none could wrest the market from Apple.

“Apple is basically saying that people don’t care about specs, nor do they care about the price point,” Erica Robles-Anderson, a professor of media and culture at New York University, tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview. “First and foremost, they care about some sort of form factor, look, or feel. And if that’s the case, then you have to have something sufficiently alternative. And I don’t think Google has given us that.”

The iPhone, like most Apple products, has earned enough cultural capital to inspire long-lasting brand loyalty. In an interview with Atlas Obscura, Dr. Robles-Anderson went as far as to liken Apple stores to religious temples.

“iPhone marketing campaigns make people believe they are a part of a grand social movement, even when that community appears so highly commercialized,” says Isabel Pedersen, a professor of digital culture at the University of Ontario, in an email to the Monitor. “iPhone has mastered the feeling that you belong to a tribe and that you earned it – not only through an expensive phone, but also through your identity, your personality, your friends, and your loyalty. I don’t think Android has mastered that yet.”

In some ways, the Pixel is Google’s most iPhone-like offering yet. It embraces minimalistic curves over the industrial angularity of many Android phones, although it emphasizes the headphone jack where Apple fields controversy for abandoning it. The Pixel also comes with its own cheeky personal assistant.

But emulation may not be enough, some experts say. To really sell the Pixel, Google has a considerable branding challenge ahead.

“Google Pixel needs to presuppose and cultivate a Pixel user, ‘a person,’ more than simply a tool or technology in order to win market share from iPhone,” says Dr. Pedersen. “Apple’s [advertisement] ‘The Human Family: Shot on iPhone,’ for example, is sickly sweet in its approach, but it works. It grips its customer with nostalgic identification.”

Then again, Google’s attempts to force its way into Apple’s wheelhouse may be futile. It’s not the company’s first hardware offering, after all – the Nexus arrived with big promises, but failed to make a splash.

“Is the Pixel so much better than the Nexus – or any of Samsung’s offerings, or any of Apple’s offerings – that it will really turn heads?” asks Hansen Hsu, curator of the Center for Software History at the Computer History Museum, in a phone interview with the Monitor. “It’s an open question, because it’s really late in the game. If the Pixel had come out in 2008 or 2009, maybe we’d be talking.”

“The game is almost over if you’re not Samsung or Apple,” Dr. Hsu adds. “I don’t know if anything Google does can make a difference in terms of market share.”

But as our devices become increasingly connected under the Internet of Things, Google may have a new opportunity to redefine the smartphone – just like Apple did almost a decade ago.

“We used to think like, ‘Could it get out of the box?’ Now our shoes are smart,” Robles-Anderson says. “There’s a radical capacity for computing to be in everything, which is a kind of branding challenge.”

Google’s parent company, Alphabet, is actively devoting funds and resources to development projects in artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, and smart home technologies. By properly linking these new areas of computing to its smartphones, experts say, Google could carve out its own successful niche.

“People aren’t really locked into a phone because of the phone. It’s part of a whole ecosystem of computing devices. It’s a culture move at this point,” says Robles-Anderson. “Part of the challenge is to go back to the drawing board and not think so much about the smartphone.”

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