Pixel Miss

Google’s 5G smartphones raise a big question: why?

Yesterday, at Google’s autumn hardware event dubbed Launch Night In, the tech giant launched new devices across its product families. The event showcased new Pixel phones, Chromecast streaming products and a new Nest Audio speaker. This was Google’s chance to show off its latest devices ahead of the start of the holiday shopping season.

As had been rumoured, Google announced two new Pixel-branded Android smartphones: the 5G-ready Pixel 5 and Pixel 4a, which is also available as a 4G-only variant.

With its latest devices, Google is deviating from its past cadence of Pixel releases. During the past four generations of the Pixel smartphone, Google released a large and smaller version of flagships, following similar patterns from top smartphone brands. But as we’ve previously highlighted, device makers have learned that price elasticity is a real thing in the smartphone world too.

Google’s strategy with its new Pixels is affordable 5G, stressing software wizardry over component bling. These smartphones don’t have top-of-the line chipsets or camera counts, but what they lack in brute strength, Google hopes to make up in intelligence. Both new phones support high-, mid- and low-band 5G frequencies as well as LTE, aiming to bring users a strong connection to Google’s cloud and services like Duo and Stadia.

Historically, Google has been one of the leaders in developing and implementing computational photography, mixing optics with digital sleight of hand to make imaging magic. And again, Google is promising great photography by using software smarts. The camera on the new phones has an ultrawide lens, a Night Sight feature that works in portrait mode, and a setting that lets users adjust the lighting in post-processing. The challenge for Google is that its camera capabilities are no longer unique, as all leading smartphone makers focus on camera and imaging tech to try and make their latest and greatest devices stand out.

One feature that caught our eye is Hold for Me. When a user calls a business line and is put on hold, the built-in Google Assistant can wait on their behalf and alert the user when the call is answered by a human. This feature is sure to make its way onto other Android-powered phones in the future. Google has also added an Extreme Battery Saver mode that will mute all app processing that goes on in the background, and only let essential apps through. But this is a feature that other smartphone makers, notably Samsung, have been working on for several years.

This highlights a big challenge for Google: differentiation has become gradually more difficult. The need for broad distribution of Google services across devices and platforms is a constant tension with the hardware business and the need to set Pixel apart from Android’s long line of licensees. The result is that Pixel lacks clear differentiation in software while rivals are arguably moving faster in hardware design and features.

Pixel 5 is available for pre-order for $699 and the 5G-ready Pixel 4a costs $499. When the phones were conceived, this was probably considered to be punchy pricing for a 5G device, but the market has moved faster than Google. We’ve seen announcements from companies such as Motorola releasing its Moto One 5G at $445, and some Chinese brands are offering much lower prices. Pricing of 5G smartphones has reached mainstream levels faster than anyone expected, with even top brands working to bring 5G to mid-level price tiers.

Given Google’s scale, the progress of the Pixel business has been disappointing, particularly in light of the difficulties Huawei has faced. Mobile operators, retailers and consumers would benefit from a credible alternative to Apple and Samsung. On paper Google should fit the bill, but the company has consistently failed to live up to expectations. Sadly, it’s hard to see how these new devices will do anything to address these shortcomings.

Google’s smartphone hardware strategy is in need of a reset. The company either needs to deliver differentiated flagship Android experiences or mass-market products with broad distribution. Right now, it provides neither and sits awkwardly within a vibrant ecosystem of Android players led by Samsung. Google must prove that Pixel still has a role.