Google readies Pixel for the masses, but are the masses ready for Pixel?

Scaling buggy hardware is easier than scaling software

Comment Industry sources have confirmed that Google is readying lower-cost Pixel smartphones for imminent launch.

Metadata spotted at the Google Play Store website supports the theory that the Pixel 3a models will be announced next month at Google's I/O conference.

Since rebranding its Nexus phones as Pixels, Google has been happy to copy Apple's exclusivity strategy of selling premium products to build the brand. The Pixel 3 went on sale at £739 and £869 (XL), although it's now heavily discounted.

The Pixel's camera is widely acknowledged to be the best on the market, thanks to years of progress in computational photography. It can now tap into a custom chip that accelerates the HDR+ process. Like its predecessor, Google offers a minimalist skin and monthly updates. Developers seeking access to early builds of Android also bought in.

But scaling up to meet the mass market will be a novel challenge for Google's product team – who now have to face far more picky customers.

The product line has been plagued with problems. The original (2016) Pixel had a notoriously faulty mic and a slew of software bugs – forgiven because it was regarded as a debut product. Pixel 2 phones went to sleep after accepting a call and the patch took months to arrive. Early buyers found off-colour screens (initially denied) and audio problems. Others found a persistent whining noise – even with Radio 4 turned off.

Last November we recklessly suggested that the Pixel 3's problems weren't as great as its predecessors'.

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But the Pixel 3 had its own set of woes. The phone would crash when Instagram, Snapchat or any other third-party app attempted to use the camera. Months elapsed before Google finally addressed stuttering app startups last month. Bluetooth has been a perpetual pain. Outstanding issues today include poor or variable call quality and flashing screens.

Even on the Reddit Pixel owner forums, buyers express remorse: don't buy a smartphone for its camera. Some have gone back to the Pixel 2.

With 2,000 staff joining from HTC over a year ago, hardware problems should be diminishing (HTC itself has all but pulled out of smartphones, focusing on its Vive VR range instead).

"Google's $1.1bn acquisition of parts of HTC... does not seem to have made any difference," analyst Richard Windsor wrote in a scathing summary headed "Google is still not a hardware company". The continuing plague of problems "further reinforces my opinion that Google has no business selling hardware," he said, going on to recommend that Google abandons Pixel and license its world-class imaging algorithms to a selected partner, such as Samsung, instead.

But this would be fraught with political difficulties. Google owns the platform and now wants to own the products that use the platform, competing with its Android licensees. Bear in mind that it controls the third-party compatibility tests that decree whether a phone is "true" Android, and so qualities for the Google binaries, apps and app store. Picking Samsung would be picking a winner.

Instead, Google is doubling down. If Google can't improve its dreadful reputation for hardware, the public may not be as forgiving as the photography aficionados, tech enthusiasts and developers who have kept loyal to Pixel for its camera, despite all its faults. ®

Bootnote

In our Pixel 2 review last year, we discussed phone value in terms of the personal data that must be disclosed to Google. We reported that in some categories, Google's data collection can only be "paused", not halted, by the user. This would become a major news story later that year. Google has since declined to send us any more samples.

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