How Google’s Pixel 8 changes everything for Android

Google’s freshly revealed Pixel phones have plenty of good things goin’ for ’em — but don’t let all the shiny surfaces, camera smarts, and AI additions fool ya.

That stuff’s all fine and dandy, sure, and it’s what’ll potentially convince some average phone-buyin’ animals to pick a Pixel over all the other rectangle-shaped choices.

But what makes Google’s latest Pixel phones particularly significant is something you can’t see on the surface. It’s something a typical human strolling into a carrier store probably won’t be in the least bit aware of. And yet, it’s the part of the Pixel 8 and Pixel 8 Pro that’s without a doubt the most important — and the most consequential from a platform-wide and even industry-wide perspective.

It’s the fact that these two Google-made phones come with an unprecedented post-sales software support promise. It may not seem like earth-shattering news, especially in the context of all the far more eye-catching, advertising-friendly elements the devices offer.

But make no mistake about it: It’s the most significant change we’ve seen in Android this decade. And it could have a major effect on your phone-buying future — whether you use a Google Pixel device or not.

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Google’s Pixel 8 promise

The news, in case you haven’t heard, is that Google’s guaranteeing a whopping seven years of operating system updates for its new Pixel 8 and Pixel 8 Pro phones — along with seven full years of security updates, feature drops, and overall support, to boot.

For comparison, as it stands now, Pixel phones have been getting three years of OS updates along with five years of security patches. Google has more than doubled the maximum advisable lifespan of its flagship phones, in other words, while continuing to sell ’em for less than the leading competition.

Now, for context: Google’s Pixels were already in a league of their own when it comes to upgrade reliability on Android. My annual Android Upgrade Report Card analyses tell you all you need to know on that front: Year after year, time after time, Google gets every Android operating system update into the hands of its Pixel owners within a matter of days, often even hours, of the software’s release — regardless of whether the device in question is the most recent model, a second-gen version, or even a three-year-old Pixel — while literally every other Android phone-maker flails and fails with delays stretching anywhere from a few months to sometimes well over a year.

Google Pixel 8 Google

Google’s Pixel 8 Pro phone, in its blissful new “Bay” blue color.

So Google’s always been ahead of the game when it comes to software support timeliness. But it’s been stuck on this three-year window for longevity for far too long — a liability that creates a perception of Android phones not holding up to iPhones when it comes to support life. Heck, even Samsung started providing four years of OS upgrades to many of its Galaxy models last year, and while it’s far less speedy and reliable with those deliveries (and switches to a quarterly model for its security patches starting in a phone’s third year, on top of that), that contrast isn’t exactly a good look for Google as the platform’s primary keeper.

The Apple comparison is pretty misleading, too, truth be told — as what constitutes an OS update on Android is wildly different than what you find on iOS. Long story short, Apple bundles in all sorts of stuff into its twice-annual updates while Google breaks numerous system-level pieces out into standalone apps and updates ’em numerous times a month in a way that reaches all devices more or less instantly and indefinitely. So it’s not exactly an apples-to-apples juxtaposition, to say the least.

But even so, the reality remains that after three years, a Google-made Pixel phone has traditionally stopped receiving operating system updates. And despite all the emphasis around security patches and Play-Store-provided rollouts, Android operating system updates absolutely do matter — as all interface enhancing and feature finessing aside, OS updates often include significant under-the-hood improvements along with important security and privacy advancements. They also introduce both expansions and restrictions to APIs, which are what permit third-party apps to interact with your phone and personal data and perform a variety of advanced functions.

Those updates are so important, in fact, that I would never suggest anyone keep using a phone that isn’t actively receiving ’em in a reasonably timely manner.

And that gets at the heart of why this Pixel support life change is so critically consequential. But to understand what practical impact it could have across all of Android — and potentially beyond — we need to dig in a little deeper.

The Pixel 8 smartphone math

When we think about the actual value of a modern mobile device, I like to lean on something I call smartphone math.

The idea, as we hinted at a moment ago, is that in order for a phone to maintain an optimal level of privacy, security, and performance, it needs to receive both timely and reliable operating system updates and timely and reliable security patches. Whether every single phone-owner realizes it or not, the former provides significant under-the-hood improvements related to all three aforementioned areas — while the latter, of course, fills in the gaps and addresses a variety of vulnerabilities along the way.

And so with that in mind, you can think of a phone’s maximum advisable lifespan as being the number of years it’s guaranteed to receive both operating system updates and the smaller security patches between ’em — two equally important parts of an optimal mobile device puzzle.

Having that framework in mind empowers you to calculate exactly how much any given phone actually costs you for every single year or even day that you’d be able to advisably use it.

To wit:

  • Google’s new Pixel 8 costs $699, and it’ll get those seven years of both OS updates and security updates — so, with a bit of basic number-crunching, we can see that it’d cost you roughly 100 bucks per year of advisable ownership or 27 cents per day over the course of that seven-year window.
  • Samsung’s latest top-of-the-line Galaxy gizmo, the Galaxy S23, costs $799 and receives four years of OS update deliveries. That comes out to $200 per year of advisable ownership or 55 cents a day — basically twice what you’d pay for the Pixel 8, provided you intend to use it on some level for that entire time.
  • And on the other side of the mobile-tech spectrum, Apple will charge you the same $799 for its iPhone 15. And while the iCrew doesn’t make any explicit guarantees about its software support, it tends to provides OS updates for six years, according to recent analyses. So with our handy math, that means an iPhone 15 will likely cost you about $133 a year or 36 cents a day over the entire period of its fully supported, advisable ownership period.
Google Pixel 8 Price Comparison Google/Samsung/Apple/JR Raphael

Smartphone math — the Google Pixel 8 vs. Samsung Galaxy S23 vs. Apple iPhone 15.

An interesting breakdown, wouldn’t ya say? It’s a differentiator Google would be wise to emphasize in its presentation of the Pixel 8, but all immediate cost-related value aside, the real impact of this could hit in two far more broadly meaningful ways:

1. It could help Google grab more of the mobile market.

Now, hang on: This isn’t about any type of weird corporate cheerleading or silly “winner!” bragging rights. We, as mammals who buy and use these devices, don’t have much of any real stake in the mobile market share game — but we do have plenty of stock in the practical effects the state of that market creates.

And that’s where this could really make a difference. As it stands now, the US mobile market is dominated largely by Apple and Samsung. Everyone else represents a relatively meager, single-digit slice of the pie.

To be clear, Google’s position is growing — both in the US and globally. In fact, Pixel sales have been exploding with double- or sometimes even triple-digit growth in most recent quarters while smartphones sales and sales specific to most other device-makers have been falling.

But with the exception of Japan, where Pixels are actually now taking the top spot on the sales chart, the position of Pixels in the bigger picture remains relatively meager — around 4% or so of the total here in the States, for instance. So while there’s certainly significant momentum, those numbers still need to expand considerably if the Pixel is gonna hold any real influence over the state of smartphone development.

And that’s where Google growing its share of the market as a result of the Pixel 8’s added value could count. No matter which kind of platform or phone flavor you prefer, after all, competition can only be a good thing — and yes, I realize the irony of talking about Google being the one who might break through an established arena to create competition! Without true competition, though, the market leaders can rest on their laurels and not be motivated to push forward with changes and improvements that’ll ultimately benefit us, as users.

And that leads us directly into the second, more tangible benefit that could come from this…

2. It could force others to follow suit.

Sure, the immediate impact of the Pixel 8 offering seven full years of support is that anyone buying the Pixel 8 reaps the benefit of that change. But more broadly, what’s likely to happen is that other device-makers will eventually be moved to match that same promise in order to remain competitive and avoid being seen as falling behind in what they offer.

We’ve seen it happen before — numerous times. Heck, back at the start of the Pixel journey, Google’s phones and all other Android devices came with only a two-year operating system upgrade promise.

Back in 2016, a certain riled-up Android writer perched upon his soapbox and called for Google to step up its promise and provide Pixel owners with three years of operating system updates — an above-average guarantee that’d give Google’s homemade devices an above-average Android experience fitting with the rest of their positioning.

Google listened, and three years soon became the standard upgrade window for Pixels near and far. And guess what happened next? Yup: Other Android phone-makers followed suit and started offering three years of support for their devices, too. And then soon after, Samsung decided to one-up Google and offer four years for its Galaxy gizmos. See how that played out?

Last December, the same yap-flappin’ frumpus slid up to his soapbox again and suggested it was high time for Google to not only meet but exceed Samsung’s standard and put its Pixel products back at the top of the Android support life heap. And, well, here we are.

If that same cycle continues — and history suggests it will — the next step will be Samsung and other manufacturers scrambling to catch up to Google’s new guarantee. It’s a ripple effect that benefits us all, no matter what flavor of phone we prefer.

Mark my words: Everything else about these new Pixel phones may be interesting, but this software support change is truly transformative — and its effects almost certainly won’t be limited to any single phone model or type of device.

Don’t let yourself miss an ounce of Pixel magic. Start my free Pixel Academy e-course to uncover oodles of hidden features and time-saving tricks for any Pixel device you’re using.

Copyright © 2023 IDG Communications, Inc.


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