The only logical question about Pixel is "why would a successful company build a product that is entirely illogical and entirely unsellable"? I can think of three reasons...
Back in January I spent a good proportion of one day during CES getting cross about a fridge. The fridge in question was Samsung's ridiculous mashup of a fridge where they stuffed an Android-based computer that could run Evernote into it. It's easy to push my buttons about fridges with general purpose computers embedded in them, it got my goat, and I whined about it.
When I'd published the piece, my very good, real life friend Edward Behan pointed out to me that the whole point of the Samsung fridge might not have been to make a product that no one would want, but rather to game the media into talking about Samsung fridges. He asked me if I knew that Samsung made fridges before I'd heard about the stupid mashup one, and I confessed that I did not. I now do, and can probably never forget that fact. Moreover, Samsung got a lot of coverage that day.
What the insane Pixel does is, like Samsung's fridge, it gets everyone talking about Chromebooks. Twitter has gone on about nothing else for about six hours now. Google News has articles from 216 news sources already. I know of a number of people are going to be receiving their own trial/review hardware tomorrow, who are going to be doing some deep thinking about Chromebook and from there will be continuing to add grist to the Chromebook mill.
What's really interesting about the coverage though is that a good number of people are spinning the negativity about Pixel back into positivity about Chromebook generally. (I'm happy to be positive about Chromebook regardless of Pixel -- I think the Chromebook in concept and execution is a superb and I hope it does really well.)
Sam Biddle in Gizmodo in a (fantastic) piece called "Every Reason Not to Buy The Chromebook Pixel" closes the article by saying "The Chromebook as an idea is a splendid idea: a cheap laptop that gives you exactly your money's worth. Affordable computing. Simple computing. These are all good ideas." He then laments the stupidity of the Pixel, but the essential Chromebook message outside of whatever Pixel actually is or isn't is delivered in the text that I've quoted. "The Chromebook as an idea is a splendid idea".
Thus Google has hit a beautiful home run -- everyone is talking about Chromebook. Articles that like the Pixel are positive about both the Chromebook proposition and the Pixel device. Articles that dislike the Pixel remain positive about the Chromebook proposition.
What's happened here is that in terms of timing, Chromebook was just getting a toehold into the market. Even by releasing a product that has zero chance of actually, Google now has a toehold and a handhold. The whole manoeuvre (assuming it is one) is just beautifully done.
My second argument for building a hyper-expensive Chromebook is that it keeps a lid on average selling prices (ASP) of PCs. These are currently very low at only around $420 and part of the challenge of the PC industry is to get that price up. The lever for doing that is thought to be adding touch-screen capability -- specifically that people will pay more for a touch-screen than the actual hardware costs adding some breathing room into ASPs. It would also be nice (PC makers say) if people demanded a little more finesse and industrial design va-va-voom from their PCs, both of which would also kick ASP up some.
However, one thing the Pixel shows is that if you want a Chromebook beautiful industrial design, a high-density touch screen, light-weight, and premium materials, it is going to cost you $1,300. You then look at what it can do and think to yourself "that's ridiculous".
From that angle, Pixel may be doing the complete opposite of validating Microsoft's touch strategy with Windows 8 -- it may be positioning touch-screen technology as expensive and unnecessary. Similarly, you may think that naff plastic is just fine when hearing that making a chassis out of a unicorn/hyperdiamond blend doubles the cost of the unit. The Pixel makes the whole idea of expensive computing pointless in and of itself.
Coming back to the earlier point, the Pixel reminds everyone what the Chromebook is -- a very cheap piece of limited hardware that has a very specific purpose. But it also reminds people that PCs are also very cheap. Putting the idea in someone's head that they could pay $1,300 on something that doesn't deliver value could have the weird effect of reminding people that $420 for a PC is very good value.
Finally, people lament the change in Google from a bunch of scrappy geeks with cool ideas into something more corporate, but the Pixel could just be an experiment. Google can release any hardware it likes and no one cares. It makes money out of services, not hardware. No one really cares if Chromebook lives or dies -- at this point in time at least.
Microsoft and Apple are not in that position at all. Microsoft went all in saying it would build fantastic new PC hardware, and is now is getting lightly beaten up by industry watchers and the market for not entirely setting the world alight with it. Apple obviously has to be really careful. If it produced a $2,000 iPad that could only run mobile Safari -- quite a lot of their market cap would evaporate overnight.
What if Pixel is just to pilot working with a new manufacturing partner ahead of some other, more important and sensible project? Or just to see what happens if it works with a certain casing material? Or just to see what happens if it leaks an product video a week ahead of an actual release? Or just to see if anyone buys it and they end up with a new cash cow? Pixel doesn't have to be for anything. Similarly Google Glass doesn't have to be a serious product either -- all that product has to do is get people talking and thinking about that sort of technology.
I don't think it's like the Nexus Q, which was a bad product but something that emerged from Google's innards like it was a good product.
I think Pixel is deliberately bad. I'm quite confident about my first and last reasons, a bit less confident about the in the middle, but I suspect that in reality, the reason why the Pixel was created was probably something much, much smarter than anything I can think of. I don't think it was ever their intention to sell them in any real numbers.
I still quite fancy one though.
What do you think? Post a comment, or talk to me on Twitter: @mbrit.