Pixel, iPhone 7, and grading on a curve

The popular press has a weird relationship with Apple. They tend to be massive users of Apple's products, even as they take any excuse, real or imagined, to stick Apple in doomsday headlines. It makes sense — Apple has terrifically usable products, and those headlines garner huge amounts of negative attention. As long as you're willing to swallow the contradiction, it's win/win. Well, for everyone but readers and consumers. And never has that been clearer than with the Google Pixel.

Last year Apple launched iPhone 6s which, despite being completely rebuilt from 7000 series aluminum, got dinged for being the same old design, with the same old "ugly" antenna lines on the back. Some competitors had been shipping features like stereo speakers and water resistance, and Apple, apparently, couldn't even fit optical image stabilization (OIS) into the regular-sized iPhone 6s. Also: Expensive! And don't even get them started about those big-forehead-and-chin bezels!

Some of this year's criticism was even worse, with Apple adding stereo speakers, water resistance, and optical image stabilization to the regular-sized iPhone 7, but daring to keep the same design, at the same starting price, and with the same still not-deleted bezels.

Then Google announced the Pixel and Pixel XL.

They were segmented like iPhones, priced like iPhones, and they even looked like iPhones — roughly the same shape, with the same "ugly" antenna lines, and the same big-chin-and-forehead bezels. (Despite not having a Home button on the bottom front.)

Google made a point of how they controlled the hardware this time, from design to features. Google could have made the Pixel look like anything — like a Galaxy S7 Edge, like an LG G5, like a Moto X, or like something completely new and refreshing. Google carefully, deliberately, chose to make it look like an iPhone 6s, though. And that means they get to own that choice. As do we.

So, everyone who'd been criticizing Apple and iPhone design immediately called Google out for aping it?

Not so much.

Well, at least they called Google and Pixel out for the same things they called Apple and iPhone out for?

Again, not so much.

Surely they drew the line at Google's 2016 flagship missing optical image stabilization — not just in the regular-size, but in the Plus XL model as well — stereo speakers, and water resistance — things that were pointed to last year as indicators Apple was falling behind?

Turns out, not deal-breakers either.

It's almost like the Pixel is being graded on a curve. And that's terrible for consumers. "You slagged iPhone for XYZ, but now that Google has XYZ, but is missing ABC, it's the greatest thing ever? Um…. close browser, delete bookmark!"

Don't get me wrong: I love that Google is getting serious about phones. I even ordered a Pixel XL, just like I ordered a Nexus One, Nexus 4, and Nexus 5. I'm just not sure copying Apple in 2016 will be any better a strategy than copying BlackBerry or Windows Mobile would have been in 2006.

Especially not for the company who spent so much time and effort positioning Android as "be together, not the same". (A line Google's device partners must be reading between clenched teeth as of late.)

And no, sadly, a new Artificial Intelligence (AI )Assistant, when it requires ongoing payment in the form of exorbitant quantities of personal data above and beyond the already premium price of the phone itself, isn't enough to give everything else a pass.

But none of that is the point. Google's smart. They were smart enough then to react faster to iPhone than any other competitor, and they're smart enough now to react to Samsung.

As a designer, I'd prefer to see more differentiation in the market, and my eyes do bleed more than a little at seeing iPhone 4, 5, and 6 cues piled all on top of each other, but none of that is the point either.

I'm fine with Apple continuing to use rounded rectangles because my hand continues to be hand-shaped, and if Google wants to go with convention rather then challenge it, I'm fine with that too. Hell, I agree with my colleague, Serenity Caldwell, Google's even added several features Apple should strongly consider matching as well, especially "unlimited" photo storage.

Design is also freaking hard. It's all about compromise. It took Apple until this year to have the design they wanted along with water resistance, OIS on the regular-sized model, stereo speakers, minimized antenna lines, etc. Matching that, straight out of the gate, would be nearly miraculous.

I even get the reception we're seeing. After years in the Google desert, we're finally being thrown a cracker, and so we're so hungry for it, we're telling ourselves it tastes like a Ritz. Meanwhile, we're taking Apple's year-over-year crackers for granted, and looking at them like they're just regular old saltines. The human brain is a real jerk that way. It only takes perspective when you force it to.

But that's the job, and grading Pixel on a curve doesn't help anybody, even and especially Google.

So here's my advice: If you want an iPhone, accept no substitutes and get an iPhone 7. Making something that looks like an iPhone is easy, building out Apple's support infrastructure — including all the Apple Stores you can go to and AppleCare reps you can call when you have a problem — is impossible short-term. If you really want an Android phone, though, especially if you don't want one made by Samsung, and you're okay without OIS, water-resistance, and stereo speakers, and with Google data-harvesting, get a Pixel and enjoy.

Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.