The Google Pixel couldn’t win at the high end, but the midrange isn’t any easier

Today, Google will announce the Pixel 5 and 4A 5G. Well, not so much “announce” as launch, since the company already told us these phones were coming when it announced the Pixel 4A in early August. We know what to expect because these phones have leaked every which way but Sunday. And Google has already told us what the Pixel 4A 5G will cost, too: $499.

About the only thing that isn’t widely confirmed as of this writing (late last night) is the pricing for the Pixel 5. There are strong rumors that it will clock in at $699, which lines up with the big takeaway I expect to come away with today. That would be this: Google is retrenching into the midrange this year instead of directly trying to compete with the flagships from Apple and Samsung.

Moving down in price would be more true to what the Pixel is. But when it comes to Pixel hardware, no good deed goes unpunished. The midrange market Google is presumably headed towards has recently filled up with competitors that either beat the Pixel 5’s rumored price, beat it on rumored specs, or both.

The Samsung Galaxy S20 FE is sitting on my desk right now and after just a couple of days I can already say it’s a very good deal for $699. The OnePlus 8 regularly sells for $599 these days and its cheaper Nord phone is also likely to come to the US in some configuration. Plus, of course, the iPhone 11 is $699 and it’s likely that there will be a new iPhone in the same price class soon enough.

Even so, it’s a smart move to head into the midrange. Expectations of perfection in every category are lower and frankly I don’t think there’s as much appetite for ultra-premium phones and their ultra-high price tags right now. Besides, Google has struggled to credibly compete in the flagship market, where phones cost well over a thousand bucks and are packed with every spec and feature you can think of.

The Pixel line has also never credibly competed with the sales numbers we see from the top-tier Galaxy phones and iPhones in the US. Google has done much better with the Pixel 3A and presumably is doing well with the Pixel 4A, but it still isn’t making a dent in the market.

IDC analyst and associate VP Francisco Jeronimo estimates that Google sold about 7.2 million Pixel phones in 2019. 7.2 million phones is a drop in the bucket in global smartphone sales, and yet he reports it was a 52 percent year-over-year increase on the strength of the Pixel 3A and expanded markets.

When you’re trying to decide which smartphone to buy, I don’t think you should care about how many units are sold just like I don’t care about the stock price. Market share only matters insofar as its an indication of two things: the availability of accessories like cases and the likelihood you’ll get support when you need it. In both cases, I think it’s fair to say Google is committed to filling those roles.

But I bring up market share anyway because it’s numbers like these that have me continually wondering just what Google is up to with the Pixel. In this newsletter I asked why it is making its own phone hardware and had the CEO of the company directly answer that question. Here’s Sundar Pichai’s answer from this past May, emphasis mine:

So for me, three reasons. One is to drive computing forward. The second is we really guide our ecosystem. […] And third is to really build a sustainable hardware business.

On all three fronts, I give the Pixel line a C. I give that grade even though I grade the quality of the individual phones themselves much higher. The Pixel 3A and 4A are inexpensive marvels and even the oft-maligned Pixel 4 is still a cleaner, more elegant experience than more powerful devices from other Android makers. I obviously won’t tell you if the Pixel 5 or 4A 5G are any good until I actually use them. But the specs that have leaked recently make me think they both will end up being better than expected.

Let’s go through these justifications. When it comes to driving computing forward and guiding the ecosystem, I don’t think the Pixel makes a strong case right now. Yes, earlier models kicked the whole industry in the rear on camera quality, forcing everybody to up their game.

But since then, Pixel phones have mainly shown how to make a version of Android that’s not annoying, and a lot of manufacturers seem to be ignoring that. Google also comes in so late in the year that there have always been Android phones that have beaten it to the punch on using the latest Qualcomm chips. Trying to make secure face unlock a thing seems to have gone precisely nowhere, too.

What’s sort of wild about the first two Cs is that before the Pixel, Google had another lineup of phones with precisely those goals, the Nexus phones. And in fact, Nexus phones regularly “drove computing forward” by showcasing how Android could work on new chips and I think also served to “guide the ecosystem” better than the Pixel does today.

The difference is that Google didn’t directly “make” the Nexus phones, it partnered with other companies. And the other difference is that the Google never really claimed that it would sell Nexus phones in large numbers or “build a sustainable hardware business” with them.

Whatever the actual sales number for the Pixel line may be, it’s indisputable that they’re low compared to the big-name competition. I don’t see how it has become a “sustainable hardware business” yet. But the growth seems good and Google has hit upon a very obvious strategy: sell a good phone for a lower price. Funny how that works.

There’s reason to believe that on all three fronts, Google may be getting lower grades now because it’s putting all its effort into next year’s classes. Given the frenetic pace of news, you’ll be forgiven if you missed that Google is working on its own processor silicon in collaboration with Samsung. Axios reported that it’s codenamed “Whitechapel” and it could ship as early as next year.

Getting off Qualcomm’s Snapdragon chips would be an instant differentiator for Google. If its own chips perform better, it would also make it easier for Google to re-enter the flagship market and to get a lot of people to look at the Pixel line again. (It’s doubtful Google would also make its own 5G modems, though.)

It’s always risky to assume that a product will be better next year — just ask Bluetooth — but my hunch and hope is that the Pixel 5 and 4A may represent the end of the first era of Pixel phones. I hope that they’ll be good phones in their own right. I also hope that when it comes to the grades Google is earning on Pichai’s three hardware goals, the Pixel 5 isn’t the final exam.

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