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There’s no reason Google’s AI features should launch on Samsung phones before older Pixels


Every year, we see a new crop of the best Android phones from the big brands like Samsung, Google, Asus, Xiaomi, and OnePlus, all trying to be the best Android phones for consumers. Incremental improvements in hardware and new software features play equally important roles in making new phones feel “new.” However, when features aren’t hardware-dependent, we are constantly disappointed that brands like Google don’t pass new features down to older models, especially after they’ve exhausted their novelty value.

Exclusivity sells

New phones must have new features

Take, for instance, the newest crop of Google’s phones — the Pixel 8 and 8 Pro. Both models debuted with class-leading hardware and a healthy dollop of the company’s latest generative AI tech pre-installed. A bunch of these features, such as Audio Magic Eraser, Video Boost, AI-generated wallpapers, and Magic Editor, are exclusive to the Pixel 8 series. It’s perfectly understandable when Google limits these features to its newest phone, even if they don’t demand the processing muscle of the latest hardware. That still doesn’t explain why the company limits a few features like Video Boost and the on-device AI model, Gemini Nano, to the pricier Pixel 8 Pro, even though it shares the Tensor G2 SoC with the vanilla Pixel 8. Google says the additional RAM on the Pro model helps on-device AI perform complex computation quicker, but that shouldn’t affect features like Video Boost because they are mostly cloud-delivered, especially for longer clips.

Yes, exclusive features distinguish models of a particular year and help them stand out from the older variants, at least until there’s a new launch to talk about. We witnessed this eventual rollout happen with Magic Eraser, which was announced with the Pixel 6. However, it was subsequently rolled out to older Pixel phones for free after a year of exclusivity. Google One subscribers also got access to it on other Android devices and even iPhones through the Google Photos app. And this is fine, because Google prioritized its own customers and devices above products from other brands.

Pixelated Priorities

You can make it happen if you want it bad enough

More recently, though, the AI-generated wallpapers of the Pixel 8 caught my fancy. If you haven’t heard, it’s a small addition to the Wallpaper & Style section on the phone, allowing you to customize a few key parameters of a textual prompt for AI, which is used to cook up an image and serve you an innovative new wallpaper. You can choose the art style, subject of the image, and mood, among other things.

As a long-time customization enthusiast, I’ve been aching to try AI-generated wallpapers. So, I was immeasurably disappointed to find that it’s going to remain a Pixel 8 exclusive for the foreseeable future, even though my Pixel 7 doesn’t lack the horsepower for it. Apex Android researcher Mishaal Rahman found Google is using a cloud-delivered text-to-image diffusion model for the feature, meaning Google can extend the feature to almost any device, if it wants to.

Earlier this month, Samsung announced a similar AI-powered wallpaper generator for its new Galaxy S24 series alongside a new Circle to Search feature in partnership with Google. Upon closer inspection, Rahman discovered Samsung is also using Google’s diffusion model for its wallpaper generator. To use generative wallpapers on an S24, you need to agree to Google’s generative AI terms of service, too. Seeing Google prioritize another brand instead of the customers of its older Pixel phones left a bad taste. Even the most recent surprise Feature Drop for Pixel phones didn’t backport AI wallpapers.

In fact, Rahman says the company was testing the AI wallpaper generator on the Pixel 6 and 7. It doesn’t just end there — the Galaxy S24 has several other Gemini and Imagen AI features Google developed for it, before they were deeply integrated into older Pixel phones. Integrating new AI features with its own hardware will keep consumers happy, and perhaps even foster brand loyalty, which translates into repeat customers.

However, it appears Google is looking to milk a bigger cash cow, expanding its revenue horizons beyond advertising and Android licensing. Samsung likely has financial commitments to Google for the AI tech it is borrowing, and the company seems to have a plan in place to eventually pass the costs to consumers. Samsung’s suite of Galaxy AI features, which includes Google-provided tech, is only guaranteed to be free to use until 2025. After that date, people buying Galaxy phones could have to cough up subscription fees to continue using Google’s AI tech. Such a system would further incentivize Google to develop AI applications on the SaaS (software as a service) model, and license them out to other companies.

We agree Samsung and Google joining forces this time is giving the smartphone industry an onward push, but Pixel phones don’t enjoy as large a market share as Samsung’s. Since both companies are now neck-and-neck as far as longevity of software support goes, it all boils down to which brand offers new features to older devices the soonest, and Google may hurt direct sales of Pixel devices the way its headed, creating a ripple effect across its hardware departments.

Corrective action

Never too late to right your wrongs

The Galaxy S24 getting unique Pixel 8-exclusive features is a mere first sighting of possibly several partnerships to come. Although Google may have given Pixel-exclusive features to other phones previously, correcting this mistake is simple enough. The company should make it a priority to launch Pixel-exclusive features on older Pixel phones before they are unlocked for other manufacturers, especially if the implementation isn’t hardware-dependent. Ideally, we wouldn’t want to wait for more than a year before Pixel 8’s bag of tricks is available on every predecessor well-equipped to confidently run them. I certainly wouldn’t want what happened with the wallpaper generator to kick-start a trend of recurring disappointment.

We also hope that at some point, Google integrates its AI tech into an existing subscription like Google One, created equal for every Android user, no matter which device they use — something that might just be happening with Bard’s premium tier in the future.

On the bright side, I’m just happy Google has bigger plans for its AI products, and isn’t limiting itself to the Pixel range. Surely the S24 picking up AI wallpapers is a sign my Pixel 7 will enjoy the convenience, eventually. When that would be is anyone’s guess.

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