Mobility

Here's the one thing keeping me from dumping my iPhone for Google's Pixel

Apple is strategically using iMessage lock-in to keep customers from moving to Android, which is bad news for would-be iPhone switchers.

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Image: Stephen Shankland/CNET

After using the Google Pixel for several days I'm happy to report that it's fantastic. I've rejected the hitherto clumsy Android interface for years, and even superior screens or cameras couldn't move me off my iPhone. The Google Pixel is the first Android phone that I'd happily swap for my iPhone. In fact, that's exactly what I have done this week, without missing a beat.

Well, except for one, and it's a doozy. Everything about the Pixel experience "just works," except for its lack of support for Apple's iMessage. That's not Google's fault, but it's ultimately a headache that I'm not willing to embrace. Apple seems to view iMessage as a way to stoke sales of iOS devices. I'm not sure if that's true, but it does seem like a great way to block any potential exodus to Android.

SEE: Google Pixel phone: The smart person's guide

Fantastic phone, not so fantastic AI

The more time I spend with the Pixel, the more I like it, and even prefer it in key ways to my iPhone 7. I've always liked the idea of Android more than the day-to-day experience it provides, but the Pixel makes it snappy, beautiful, and easier to organize than my iPhone. Given that many of my preferred services are owned by Google already, and those that aren't have data residing in the cloud, getting productive with my Pixel has been as easy as inputting my login credentials. As an added bonus, some of my favorite apps actually look and work better on Android than iOS.

As a bundle of hardware and software, then, the Google Pixel is fantastic, and is serious competition for the relatively affluent buyer of Apple's iPhone.

SEE: Is Google's Pixel phone a bigger threat to Samsung than exploding batteries?

My primary reason for buying Google's Pixel was not the phone itself, however, but rather the potential for Google magic powering the overall experience. As widely reported, AI is the heart of the Google Pixel, and is arguably the Pixel's biggest selling point.

Or would be, if uttering "OK Google" yielded anything better than rivals "Hey Siri" or "Alexa." Unfortunately, despite a willingness to shovel as much of my data into Google as possible, it's not. At least, not yet. When everything goes well, then talking with my Pixel is great: I get a quick read on how long my commute will take, can send texts to friends as I drive (without typing), etc. But the "everything goes well" scenario happened so rarely that most of the time I had to enjoy the phone itself and forget its affectations of intelligence, artificial or otherwise.

Still, this is no worse than my experience with Siri on my iPhone or the Amazon Echo (Alexa) in our kitchen. Each is an indication that, as Red Hat's Alessandro Perilli points out, "Progress made since 2012 is underwhelming." It's neat that AI can answer a few reasonably well-structured questions, but somewhat disappointing that this is pretty much all it can do.

In short, the phone is on par with the iPhone, and better in some ways, while the AI is just as bad (or good, depending on how optimistic you want to be). But the reason I won't be keeping the Pixel is iMessage.

The iMessage moat

As an Apple executive told Walt Mossberg, Apple won't support iMessage on non-Apple devices because it gets no data benefit from doing so, and the company believes "a superior messaging platform that only work[s] on Apple devices...help[s] sales of those devices." It's not clear to me how iMessage stokes sales, because to outsiders it's just another way of sending text messages. The value isn't clear.

SEE: Pixel, Galaxy, iPhone, oh my! Why pay a premium when every phone runs the same apps? (ZDNet)

But to those of us who depend on it, and mostly as a way to send messages from a Mac, it's an effective way of keeping us from bolting for other platforms. Sure, there are kludgy workarounds that allow for sending/receiving iMessages on other platforms, but they're beyond what 99.999% of the world is willing to do.

Over the last few days I straddled two worlds: The world of SMS/MMS and iMessage. I pulled my SIM card out of my iPhone and ongoing conversations with those friends and family effectively stopped. I'd have to start a new thread on my Pixel and it didn't flow as before. iMessage is a beautiful messaging service...and it's an Apple-only service.

Am I happy about this? No. But communication is fundamental to why I use my phone, and until Apple relaxes its hold on iMessage I can't leave for Google's Pixel. For those of you not so constricted, however, get a Pixel. Now.

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About Matt Asay

Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.

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