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The missing piece in Google's Pixel puzzle


All right, stop me if you’ve heard this before: Google’s about to get serious about hardware.

Yeah, yeah — I know. I’ll pause for a second while you regain your composure.

Look, I’m a huge fan of what Google’s trying to do with its Pixel products. If you’ve read my ramblings for long (or seen the NSFW multicolored “P”-logo tattoos on various parts of my person), you know how I feel about the Pixel’s place in the Android ecosystem and the critical role it plays. (Just kidding about the tattoos, by the way.) (For now.)

But the truth is that we’ve been hearing the “Google’s about to get serious about hardware” line for a long time now — over and over and over again. At a certain point, you’ve gotta ask: “Uh, gang? When is this actually starting?!”

Today’s that day. I’m asking, publicly, right here and now. But I’m also cautiously expressing optimism that the answer is a resounding: “Right now — for reals this time.”

All hot air aside, there’s only one way that hope could happen. And it’d require Google overcoming a major challenge the company has yet to show any sign of being ready to pull off.

Allow me to explain.

Pixel perspective

First, a bit of necessary context to set the stage here: It’s important to note that Google’s hardware-making ambitions technically stretch back to the pre-Pixel days. Aside from its (mostly) fan-focused Nexus phones, Google cooked up its own Chromebook Pixel products starting back in 2015. It’s been making a variety of Chromecast-branded streaming doohickeys since 2013. And there was that, erm, extraordinarily short-lived Nexus Q….incident circa 2012 (but we won’t talk about that).

It was when El Googster pivoted to the Pixel phone plan, though, that things really got goin’. That’s when hardware became less of a hobby and more of a business. And not only that, we were assured, but it also marked the beginning of hardware becoming a core part of Google’s broader business plan for the future of the company.

“Fundamentally, we believe that a lot of the innovation that we want to do now ends up requiring controlling the end-to-end user experience,” then-new-head-of-Google-hardware Rick Osterloh told The Verge in 2016, around the launch of the first-gen Pixel phone model.

And then there’s this oft-quoted excerpt from that same article:

Osterloh knows that “We certainly aren’t going to have enormous volumes out of this product. This is very first innings for us.” Google’s metric of success for Pixel won’t be whether it picks up significant market share, but whether it can garner customer satisfaction and form retail and carrier partnerships that Google can leverage for years to come.

Okay. Cool. So 2016 was the beginning. What about 2017?

That’s when Google hardware was “no longer a hobby,” as the next Osterloh-interview-driven article at The Verge proclaimed.

Ahem:

Last year was a coming-out party for Google hardware. This year is something different. It’s a statement that Google is very serious about turning hardware into a real business on a massive scale — just maybe not this year.

Gotcha. Oh, and:

While Osterloh expects the Pixel to “become big, meaningful business for the company over time,” right now his benchmark isn’t sales, it’s “consumer satisfaction and user experience.” So I ask: What about five years out? “We don’t want it to be a niche thing,” Osterloh says. “We hope to be selling products in high volumes in five years.”

In five years. That was 2017. And now, it’s 2022. Here we are.

Pixel potential

As we near the half-decade mark of Google’s last “getting serious” moment, it seems safe to say Pixel adoption isn’t where Google had hoped it’d be by this point. Most market share analyses show Google with such a small share of the U.S. mobile market that it rarely even warrants a presence on an official-looking line graph. “Lower single-digit percentages” would be the most polite way to sum up the brand’s status so far.

The problem certainly isn’t the Pixel product or its advantages over other Android options, particularly from a business perspective. Pixel phones are the only Android devices that get consistently timely and reliable operating system and security updates, even when they’re a year or two old, without any troubling asterisks — y’know, pesky little things like privacy policies that allow the device’s maker to collect and sell your personal data.

On a more tangible level, the Pixel line has some phenomenally useful features no one else even comes close to matching — things like Google’s A.I.-powered hold-for-you phone system, the Pixel-exclusive phone-maze navigation genie, and the spam-stopping Pixel call filtering and screening technology. And all of that’s just the start.

So what gives? Well, it’s almost laughably simple: Average schmoes need to know about all of this stuff. Phone-buying humans and the clearly nonhuman creatures who head up company IT departments have to be aware that Pixel products even exist, first and foremost — and then they have to understand why they’re worth their while to consider over the more commonly known Android phone options.

Thus far, Google’s done a pretty poor job of making that happen. My long-standing exercise is to take a Pixel-exclusive feature and imagine if Apple got its grubby virtual paws on that very same thing. Imagine how Apple would market it if the next iPhone had A.I.-enabled call screening, effective robocall-blocking technology, or a futuristic hold-for-you system. They’d all be innovative, groundbreaking, magical and revolutionary game-changers, garsh dern it it! They’d be life-transforming revelations available “only on iPhone” (because when someone pretentiously avoids the use of articles while referring to their products, you know they have to be important).

Plain and simple, we’d never hear the end of it. And with Google? Google’s got those goods this minute. How many non-tech-obsessed people do you know who are aware of any of ’em?

Marketing has never been Google’s strength, to put it mildly. But now, as we near that five-years-later “high volume” goalpost, we can only hope that someone in the company realizes that exceptional experiences alone aren’t enough to get the masses on board with what you’re doing.

You also have to make sure they know about it. That’s the real challenge Google’s gotta master if it wants to make the Pixel brand matter — and if it wants to convince us that it’s really, truly ready to take hardware seriously.

Don’t let yourself miss an ounce of Pixel magic. Sign up for my free Pixel Academy e-course to discover tons of hidden features for your favorite Pixel phone.

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.



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