Google surprised everyone yesterday with the preliminary announcement of the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro. The new smartphones have a unique design and promise clear improvements in areas such as photography, but their most prominent feature was another.
It is the debut of the Google Tensor, an SoC developed by Google that allows it not to rely on traditional Qualcomm chips and that poses a future similar to what the M1 has meant for Apple. With these chips, Google gains a lot of control, and that has very interesting potential consequences. Let’s take a look at them.
Google’s Tensor reminds us of Apple’s M1
Rumors that Google was working on a chip of its own go back a long way. The codename ‘Whitechapel’ was unveiled more than a year ago, and even then it was expected that these SoCs would be used for both future Pixel and some Chromebooks.
Many unknowns are surrounding Google’s new chip, but what is clear is that with it the company can dispense with the Qualcomm SoCs it has been using so far in its cell phones or the Intel chips that, for example, have populated many of its Chromebooks.
That poses a really interesting future for Google, especially because having its chip inevitably makes us think of a clear analogy: Google’s Tensor may pose a future similar to that posed by Apple’s M1.
- Better battery. Having control of the hardware and software means that Google will be able to optimize the Android-Tensor pairing as Apple does with iOS and its AXX chips or as it also does now with iPadOS and macOS with the new M1. That should impact for example on efficiency and battery consumption, which should benefit from this total control of the device.
- Long-term upgrades. As with Apple and its iPhone SoCs, that chip control also poses significant improvements in the longevity of its Pixels, which could support Android updates for even longer. We can imagine five-year support for which these smartphones would receive future versions of the operating system, and that would have another consequence.
- The Pixel is the center of the ecosystem. As with the iPhone, the Pixel could be an important part of an ecosystem that would now draw much more from the services that are increasingly the focus of these companies’ revenues (and that’s even more true with Google). Suddenly Google has access to a philosophy that would compete directly with Apple’s in both services and hardware.
- The unknown of price. We have seen how with the M1s MacBook prices have been lower than their predecessors with Intel chips. Google gets rid of intermediaries by dispensing with Qualcomm, for example, and that would allow it to adjust the price of its Pixel 6. They are likely to be expensive being high-end devices, but perhaps saving money by controlling that hardware will end up having an impact for good on users. Or not, of course.
- Tensor everywhere. The M1 is in more and more Apple products, which changes the packaging but not the inside. The same could happen with Google’s Tensor chip, which could be used in a future Chromebook but also a hypothetical Pixel Watch, in its smart speakers and displays, or perhaps in other future devices such as a plausible Tensor-based Google Glass. It would also make sense that there would be trimmed or improved versions of the Tensor for those hypothetical products. Also, we would benefit from, in the case of Chromebooks, better support for Android apps or high-quality webcams that benefit from that post-processing through artificial intelligence that has been key to the Pixel for years.
Many clear advantages, but one worrying disadvantage
The semiconductor market has been buzzing since Apple’s announcement of the M1, and it seems that the tech giants have realized that having their chip can be cool.
That’s certainly what it looks like after seeing how the trend in the mobile market – Huawei, Samsung, and Apple have been making custom chips for their smartphones for years – could carry over to the PC world. Google is pointing to it with Tensor chips, but it is not alone and even Microsoft seems to be working on its ARM chips for servers and even for its Surface.
The implications are striking and Intel and AMD are probably increasingly concerned – as are Qualcomm or MediaTek, logically – but in Google’s case, all those advantages posed by this new development face a danger.
The danger is none other than that of its relationship with the rest of the manufacturers, both of cell phones and Chromebooks. Suddenly Google goes from being an ally to a dangerous competitor with a chip that it controls and that may end up being better than those developed by Qualcomm or MediaTek.
Perhaps not in performance, but probably in efficiency and in that possibility that Google “favors” its chip so that it behaves better with Android than the Snapdragon 870, for example. That would put the Pixel in an awkward situation because if Android has the market share it has it is thanks to all its partners, who have made this mobile platform the most popular worldwide.
Now the Samsung, OnePlus, Xiaomi, or Vivo in the market may take a dim view of this news, and it will be interesting to see how Google manages this conflict of interest: is Google throwing stones at its backyard in the form of Tensor chips? We will find out in the coming months.