Where the Chromebook Pixel figures in Google’s game plan

More than a few people have been left scratching their heads since the announcement of Google's new premium Chromebook, the Chromebook Pixel. Some have praised its design while questioning its utility. Others have flat out called it a mistake. But when I see the Chromebook Pixel, I see Google making another deliberate move in a chess game that has played out over the last three years.

If earlier Chromebooks were pawns, the Chromebook Pixel represents the next phase of the strategy, bringing the knights and bishops into play as Google invests considerably more time, money, and expertise into the Pixel than any previous Chrome device.

The confusion arising from the announcement of the Pixel starts with a fundamental misunderstanding of the Chromebook concept; if you don't get the Chromebook, you'll be baffled by the Pixel. But more importantly, the Pixel is not the be-all and end-all of Chromebooks, it’s just the first in a new line of premium Chromebook products.

Google's strategy

Google has a strategic game plan that serves it well, and the Chromebook rollout is just following that plan. Google has long had a tradition of refining products through public beta testing, releasing a limited number of products or invites to the public and using the resultant feedback to refine and hone the product further. Google did it with Gmail in 2004, Google Docs in 2007, and then Android in 2008, Nexus phones in 2010, and Nexus tablets in 2012. Heck, Google is doing it again right now with Google Glass.

First there was the CR-48 Notebook, Google's mysterious black reference model for the Chrome-powered laptops. It was a proof-of-concept that it gave away for free to the press and select social media influencers. But while it was free, it wasn't widely available. It was a teaser, giving the movers and shakers of the web a taste of the new connectivity-over-hardware paradigm.

The first Chromebooks to be made available for purchase weren't cheap. Not only were they nowhere near the £200 mark, they weren't even inexpensive for the hardware that was being offered. But here's what a lot of people seemed to miss – that was never the point. The early Chromebooks weren't widely available – they weren't sold in stores, they weren't advertised on TV or online – those Chromebooks were the public beta.

This is how Google does hardware. A small release, priced high enough to cover their expenses while they trim the fat and buff out the rough spots until they reach the end goal. Once they've fixed the bugs and gotten the hardware costs down, then – and only then – will it really be released as a final product. Adverts go on the air. Units get shipped to stores. Devices get choice spots in Google's stores or even on Google's homepage. The beta test is over, now the real product is released.

Chromebook is the bait, Pixel is the hook

The next piece of the Pixel puzzle is understanding where it fits into the Chromebook world. The £200 Chromebook may attract bargain shoppers, but customers with more to spend won't want to keep buying the budget-friendly Chromebook over the premium offerings of other manufacturers. I think Google is attempting to create a new tier of devices within the Chromebook ecosystem. In addition to the nearly disposable Chromebooks we're getting now, there will also be a higher-end product, the Pixel line, where Google brings its A-game, with a perfectionist's eye in terms of design, and a futurist's grasp on what your laptop should be able to do, all while embracing the Chromebook ethos.

I predict that the Pixel is the proof of concept, the CR-48 of a new breed of affordable premium devices, designed to show off what the Pixel can be – but the end goal is going to be much cheaper. Think Apple-quality design, with sub-£800 prices. Google is going to hit the premium computing space just as it already has the budget laptop and netbook spaces – it’s going to reimagine it, make it more accessible, and make it far more affordable. The question for the Pixel is "Why should I spend so much money for a premium product?"

Game on

There's one other reason I compare the Pixel to the CR-48, and that's because Google is giving it away for free – or at least, it comes out that way when you crunch the numbers. The £1,049 Chromebook Pixel comes with 1TB of Google Drive storage – Google's cloud storage service – at no extra cost, for three years. Without purchasing the Pixel, that same storage costs $50 (£33) a month, or around £1,200 over the course of three years. If you've already embraced Google Drive, then Google just offered you a discount, and threw in the Pixel for free. Google's playing the same game with the Pixel that it has been playing all along.

Oh, and let's not forget the last facet of Google's established attack plan – building excitement and loyalty. By dropping a Chromebook with more than a few Apple-esque features (minimalist design, Retina-like display) and charging a premium for it, Google is broadcasting – practically screaming – that people need to rethink the Chromebook concept. It's worth taking seriously, if only because it’s now clear that Google is heavily invested in it. Given that even tech journalists are severely misunderstanding the Chromebook, this should certainly prompt a closer look and new consideration.

Google is driving home another point with the Pixel: If it's willing to pour so much money into the hardware and specs – which clearly, it is, outfitting the Pixel with a Retina-like display and touchscreen – why hasn't it bumped up the storage and the processing power? Oh, that's right, because in the Wi-Fi-connected, Google-powered world we're already living in, that hardware doesn't matter. Google is declaring the beefy processor and capacious hard drive obsolete.

So is the Chromebook Pixel worth its £1,049 price tag? Right now, it's a tough question, based largely upon how fully you already live in the cloud. With the free storage taken into account, it's far from the rip-off some reviewers are making it out to be. But whether you buy a Pixel now or not, don't write off Google's latest experiment. Just like the £200 Chromebook was previously, the Pixel that balances affordability and premium design is likely just around the corner.