Does Google make hardware just so nobody buys it?

Pixel Slate: Nero for a Day

pixel slate (headphone-jack free) google october 2018

Comment Common sense says you can't make a Veblen good out of a dumb computer terminal – but that isn't going to stop Google trying.

A Veblen good is a luxury item where demand increases the more expensive* it is. A dumb terminal such as a tablet is now a commodity good sold in supermarkets. Sales follow a conventional demand curve, and manufacturers count on selling lots cheaply. Amazon sells a colour tablet for £49.

The Pixel Slate announced this week by Google, on the other hand, is a new ChromeOS tablet that tops out at $1,600. And it doesn't have an audio jack. "LOL", as the young people say.

Reaction has been ... interesting.

The ChromeOS platform does have some advantages – but these largely accrue for enterprise owners rather than the individual actually using it, hence its popularity in education. The Pixel Slate is competing with iPad and Surface, which have far superior catalogs of mature and specialised apps. The PixelBook has Intel Inside which hampers its endurance: with an "up to 12-hour" battery life it doesn't significantly give you more time than an Arm-based tablet running Android.

We can paraphrase US president John F Kennedy here, who defined Washington DC as a combination of "Southern efficiency and Northern charm". Pixel Slate gives you all the power efficiency of an Intel but without an app catalog that can take advantage of an Intel i7 processor. Oh, and it's priced like a luxury product.

The only reason Google has done this that I can think of is: because it can. ChromeOS survived the great Chrome v Android internal war at Google and perhaps this is its way of crowing about it.

And to be fair, the app situation might change. ChromeOS is still edging towards being a grown-up OS, just very slowly. Crostini is the project to put Linux on ChromeOS and that's now official: Google says "developers can run Linux applications". Google didn't mention Android, which is also getting into ChromeOS, but so slowly you're not supposed to notice. Google didn't mention Windows either – although Windows certification is apparently on the todo list too. Just not yet.

So one day Google will be able to run all kinds of apps on a luxury ChromeOS tablet. But then it could use that time and effort much more profitably, for example, by making Android apps "multimodal" and have them behave as well as mature desktop apps. With all the apparent infighting at Google, Samsung has picked up the pace here, with its DeX scheme. In other words, Android hasn't advanced as much as it could have, because the victorious ChromeOS division wants to act like Emperor Nero for a bit.

Why would this be? Perhaps Google's services division wanted something nice to sell YouTube subscriptions against. Or perhaps Google produced hardware that almost nobody will buy because the rest of the computer industry already competes with Google in many areas and hates doing so very much, knowing that Google has deep pockets to subsidise its efforts for years. On the other hand, if Google really made a competitive product then Acer, Lenovo, HP and others that produce low-cost tablets would join the queue of people complaining about Google at the competition authorities. And that's a very long queue.

That's my theory. There may be others. What's yours? ®

* A Stanford university study has it that the price tag can change the way people experience wine, neatly illustrating the point...




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