It may seem a little strange for Google to be refocusing on smartphone manufacturing now, when the growth of smartphone sales is slowing — in some cases to a halt. Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
But making a smartphone would make sense given Google’s recent behavior, in two notable ways. One, the company recently hired a new head of Google hardware, Rick Osterloh, signaling that it’s looking to beef up its product lines. In addition to its Chromebooks, it’s also announced a new foray into the smart home with the smart speaker known as the Google Home. And as the smartphone is the heart, or more accurately the remote, of the future connected home, it may make some sense for Google to want to control its chips and hardware.
Second, it’s also true that Google has been signaling that it wants to exert more control over the Android world. Google chief executive Sundar Pichai said in June that the company would be "more opinionated" over the design of Nexus phones. Google’s strength with Android has always been because it is open, and therefore available for lots of smartphone manufacturers to use. That’s also been a weakness, however, since a lack of central control can make it hard for Google to effectively compete with the iPhone when it comes to high-end buyers.
That lack of control illustrates itself most clearly when it comes to updating to the latest smartphone system — and giving consumers a chance to use Android’s cool new features. In this case, Google has essentially no control over when most customers get an update. It’s up to manufacturers and carriers for all phones except the Nexus. That fragmentation can therefore cause problems when advertising Android features or, more seriously, patching security vulnerabilities.
To succeed with its own phone, Google will definitely have to offer something novel and interesting — Samsung's Galaxy line has the high-end of Android pretty covered right now. So how can Google stand out?
Honestly, I’m hoping that this means that smartphones are going to get a little weird again. Because they’ve gotten a little boring of late — and I’m not the only one thinking this, surveys and sales numbers support me. The smartphone in its current form is pretty optimized for the way we use it, but that also means it's a bit predictable. Selfishly speaking, I miss the not-so-old days when companies threw spaghetti at the wall — A dedicated Facebook button! A stylus! PlayStation controls! A 3D camera! — to see what would stick.
Google has a couple of exciting ideas it's announced already. The first is Project Tango, which the firm has been working on for years but recently began talking about again, which lets you scan and map the inside of the room. Researchers hope this will one day let you do cool things like letting your phone scan a room to find your keys. Right now, a Tango-enabled phone from Lenovo promises to let you, for example, measure the length of space to see if a couch can fit there. It’s something that would be welcome and useful in a Google-branded phone as well. The second project that piques interest is Project Ara, which aims to make smartphones modular — meaning you could easily snap in a new camera, a better audio recorder or a GPS unit only when you wanted.
Crazy ideas seem to be at an all-time low right now in smartphones, and that's a little bit of a problem. Sure, smartphone makers didn't always get a winner out of these experiments, but each product’s success or failure helped to drive the whole category forward, either by showing a demand for features or by telling manufacturers which ideas to abandon. We could probably use that again. And if there's still room for another smartphone revolution, Google's the kind of player that can help spur it on.