The Google Pixel will get bigger, more regular software updates you might actually remember
Yesterday, Google unveiled a new part of its strategy with Pixel phones: the so-called “feature drop.” Google has bundled a bunch of software features that are exclusive (at least for now) to the Pixel line and is releasing them in one larger update instead of trickling them out whenever they’re ready. It’s a new way for Google to release software updates, based on something that it isn’t historically very good at:
“We’re targeting a quarterly cadence [for the feature drops],” vice president of product management Sabrina Ellis says, adding that “setting that type of structure up front is helping our teams understand how they can set their development timelines.”
The feature drops are a way for Google to make the Pixel software updates more tangible to potential customers. It’s a clever name: “drops” are ways to create hype around new products in the fashion world — and Google very much needs to find a way to build more hype around the Pixel 4.
After the camera, the best reason to get a Google Pixel phone instead of another Android phone is that the Pixel is guaranteed to be the first out of the gate with Android software updates. But that benefit really only feels tangible once a year — when the new version of Android comes out and Pixel owners get a three to six month jump on the new software.
This year, the Pixel 4 has gotten a muted reception — battery life on the smaller model especially is really disappointing and video quality is not keeping up with the competition. And therein lies the problem: whatever software story Google has to tell about the Pixel is going to get overshadowed by the hardware story, year after year.
This first feature drop includes a lot of updates that may or may not make their way to other Android phones, Ellis calls them “Pixel-first.” One interesting thing about this new way of working is that one of the features launching this month on the Pixel 4 — improved memory management for backgrounded apps — should make its way to other Android phones, but perhaps not until the next version of Android.
That means that not only is the Pixel getting software features a few months ahead of other phones, it’s potentially getting them more than a year earlier.
That system-level feature (which, for the Pixel line, is much-needed) will come via a traditional system-level OS update. But most of the rest of the features Google is shipping to Pixel phones are coming within apps. In some ways, holding some of these app updates could actually mean a delay for some features, with teams holding their releases for the next feature drop. But the tradeoff is that more users will actually know those features exist in the first place — which often didn’t happen before.
I wrote earlier this year that Google can’t fix the Android update problem, but those infrastructural issues don’t really apply to the Pixel. But there is another hassle that Pixel owners aren’t likely to get away from anytime soon: they won’t arrive for everybody all at once.
Google firmly believes in rolling updates, which is a “more responsible” way to send out updates. A small group gets them first, just to ensure there aren’t unforeseen problems, then ever-larger percentages of users receive the update.
That methodology is stupendous for reliably pushing out stable software updates to huge numbers of users (not that the Pixel has huge numbers but still), but it’s absolutely atrocious for building hype. It undercuts the entire concept of the “feature drop.”
If you are one of the precious few Pixel 4 owners, here was your experience yesterday: Oh hey, a neat software update with new features. I should go get it. Oh I don’t have it. Well, okay. I’ll check one more time. Well. That was disappointing. That experience, by the way, is exactly what happened to me with my Pixel 4 XL.
Ellis admits it’s not ideal: “I would like to be where you get that drop, you get that notification, and everything will be [available]. We are working towards that.”
To mitigate it, Google is using whatever tools it can within Android to provide users with that moment of new feature excitement, without the dread of an update screwing up their phone. There will be a notification that has more context than usual about what’s new and Google will lean heavily on the Pixel Tips app to help people find the new features.
The other thing I hope Google does is the thing that’s been my hobby horse for several years now: take the cap off the marketing budget. Samsung didn’t win the Android world by making the best phone — though its phones were and are very good, arguably the best. It won by unleashing a bombastic, hilariously large and expensive multi-year ad campaign that spanned Super Bowls, brand activations, and deals to ensure its phones are prioritized by carrier employees.
I don’t see Google unleashing campaigns like that — either because it lacks confidence in the product or because institutionally it just doesn’t want to. Maybe the company believes the Pixel should win on its merits, maybe it doesn’t want to offend partners like Samsung, or maybe it just thinks the kind of shenanigans you have to play to get the likes of AT&T and Verizon to push your product are just too icky. Probably all of the above.
I digress, sorry. Like I said, it’s a hobby horse.
One thing that’s unsaid in all of this that when it comes to feature updates — especially those within apps — Google actually has a much better track record than Apple. Apple tends to ship all its new features in one big, yearly monolithic update.
Ask yourself the last time Apple updated, say, the Mail app between major iOS releases. Almost never. Ask yourself the last time Google updated Gmail? Likely it was within the past week or two.
But that cadence of near-constant app updates means that most of those features get lost. Google is trying to fix that problem by packaging some of the Pixel-specific stuff into bigger moments with more impact. This month’s feature drop is a first attempt. The more important feature drops will come in three and six months. They’ll prove that Google is actually committed to this plan and give it a chance to tighten up the infrastructure for releasing them in shorter time windows.
Ultimately, here’s the problem feature drops are designed to solve: Google’s app updates are like getting hit with a squirt gun while Apple’s are like getting hit with a water balloon. Both contain an equal amount of water, but one of them has much more impact.
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Well that’s a way to deal with the situation.