There is a song by the alternative band Garbage that is called “The World Is Not Enough” (music video here). In the video, lead singer Shirley Manson is depicted as a sort of cyborg that is being perfected only to be devised as an explosive device that is capable of murdering people by touch. The video and the message are powerful and a commentary on the nature of man, of wanting more from life. That the idea of perfection becomes inferior to the delusions of grandeur portrayed by the mind. On a less extreme level, there are companies that demand an elevated level of perfection when it comes to their products and services. We have an opinion about these companies, usually positive, and demand excellence to maintain this reputation. But at a certain point, these expectations can never meet reality. This is the fate of Google’s Pixel line of smartphones, where we expect so much from Google that they are destined to disappoint us. And this is a creation of their own doing but also a commentary of how we can elevate a brand only to tear it down.
Reality Versus Fantasy
The Google Pixel line when it was first introduced five years ago was supposed to be Google’s big play into the phone hardware space. To show the world that the company was serious about building hardware and making a premium phone experience that would contend with the giants of the industry. What has resulted is what a non-emotionally invested person should have foreseen. A company that is great at making software but with no experience at making their own hardware, made phones with great software and middling hardware.
The issue becomes that there is a misconception that hardware is easy, that anyone can produce quality hardware at the scale of Apple or Samsung. It is easy to forget the build quality issues of the first couple of Galaxy S phones or the bending and antenna issues that plagued earlier iPhones. Early on, Google realized that to make up for its lack of hardware experience it had to nail the software to make its phones popular. To their credit, the software on Pixel devices has been excellent (this review of the Pixel 4 for instance verifies this). But the tech enthusiast community always wanted more.
Enthusiasts wanted the hardware to be amazing in addition to the software. In short, they wanted the perfect phone. Quite often there would be conversations centered around having the Pixel software polish on a phone that is built by Samsung. This was always an unrealistic request because a company needs to place its priorities in some places more than others, and in Google’s case that has always been in the realm of software and user experience. The vision of the Pixel, and most Google hardware, to be honest, is to get out of the way to allow the software to shine. In terms of cars, Google has always set out to build a Honda Accord and not a Ferrari. But because it is Google that is making this phone, this is simply not enough.
We as a society have a very high opinion of Google as a name brand. After all, they are the company that has given us services like Google Search, YouTube, and Gmail. All services that many would argue are essential apps and services on all devices. Therefore, when Google is putting their logo on the back of a phone, a similar level of quality is expected. The reality is that these are all software ventures that Google has excelled at. Where it has not excelled in is hardware that caters to the masses. Google is never going to build a Samsung-like phone because that is simply not in the company’s DNA. And many reviewers and commentators on smartphones are disappointed by this.
What Is The Formula?
Every year it seems like the conversation centered around the Google Pixel is the same. The software is excellent, the hardware is okay, and pondering what would this experience be like on the bleeding edge of technology. Consider when the Pixel 4 and 4 XL were released in 2019. Compared to the Samsung Galaxy S10 released the same year, it felt that Google attempted to pull out all the stops. The camera resolution was the same, they both used the same processor, the Samsung had more RAM but Google countered with a higher refresh display. Both phones started at $799, while the S10 Plus and Pixel 4 XL both were sold at $899. The commentary was that the Pixel phones were overpriced (especially the smaller model since it had a relatively small battery). Yet the pricing with a phone that was “worth the money” was equal. So what is the factor that held the Pixel back?
This narrative comes back to one of design preference. The Pixel design language has always been aggressively minimal and spartan, where Samsung has always preferred a more flashy and colorful aesthetic for Galaxy phones. Yet when it comes to materials and internal components used, the two seem to be similar. Only one seems to be receiving criticism of being “bad hardware” however. So this begs to question, if matching the internal hardware of the competition isn’t good enough, then what actually is?
In his review of the Pixel 5 (video here), Marques Brownlee said that the Pixel 5 is not for him since Google took a more “affordable premium” approach with this device. He elaborated on this by saying that he wishes that Google would make a more flagship device with a power user like him in mind in addition to these more affordable options. In the current state of smartphones, this probably means a phone with the following: a high refresh OLED display, large battery, the latest high-end processor from Qualcomm, wireless charging, at least 128GB of storage, and a versatile triple camera setup. Other additions like in-display fingerprint sensors and reverse wireless charging would also be appreciated. All of these features would demand a price point in the vicinity of $1000–1200. I would contend that even if Google did all of this, they would still have their device panned as being too expensive or not a great value proposition.
This is the gift and curse of Google’s overabundance and simultaneous lack of brand recognition. Google’s name as a tech company on the macro level resonates and we expect the best from them. At the same time, the brand reputation of the Pixel is not stellar. The Pixel line since its inception has been plagued with quality control issues such as screen burn-in and microphone failures. This is a testament to the hardware being difficult to master. But this has resulted in a lack of faith in what Google brings to the table. To make matters worse, because Google’s other revenue-generating services are regarded so highly, this puts extra strain on the phone hardware division. It seems like a game that Google cannot possibly win, so the company has smartly decided not to play.
Explanation of the Shift
This year with the launch of the Pixel 5, Google decided that it no longer made sense to attempt to compete in the ultra-premium space with Samsung and Apple. It realized that this was a game that it could no longer afford to make fruitless attempts of success in, and this was due to the way that its phones have been covered and written off. Year after year the review cycle has continued to gloss over Google’s effort in software all the while damning them for non-flashy hardware. The conclusion that the company has come to is that operating at the highest level is reserved for Apple and Samsung and that they are best served to operate in a tier below that.
Google has targeted the $700 segment, which has been labeled as the “affordable flagship” class of smartphones. At this price point, they are competing with Samsung’s lower-tier A series and OnePlus as opposed to the best of the best from Apple and Samsung. Google has realized something that has become far too clear in recent years: flagship phone sales have more to do with brand devotion and loyalty than with the actual quality of the product. This is a lesson that OnePlus and LG have learned as well, which is why their phones in the $1000 price range do not sell very well.
Quite simply, Google will not make another ultra-high-end device because it is a losing battle that the company no longer wishes to be a part of. And while some reviewers and enthusiasts will claim that all they want is a Pixel that checks all of the proverbial boxes, any time that Google has come close to that they have been mercilessly nitpicked. Whereas on the slightly lower but still very capable range of $700 the company has a chance for success, where it can show the software magic that it is truly capable of.
In the end, I commend Google for seeing the writing on the wall and toiling away in the highest possible price bracket. The company has made it clear that it envisions itself as a tech company to be helpful to its users. This philosophy entails being the functional solution that makes advanced computing on mobile a more simple endeavor. This means an approach that doesn’t endear itself to reviewers and end-users that love an excess of features. So when the next Pixel phone comes out and people ask why there isn’t a high-end Pixel that costs over $1,000 the reason is that the narrative around the Pixel made that decision long ago.
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