A year ago, you’d have been forgiven for dismissing Google’s new Pixel phones as a superficial rebranding of the company’s “hobby” Nexus line. Most observers believed Google was still dabbling in the hardware business, even with the new “Made by Google” branding introduced alongside the Pixel. But what’s happened since then is that Google bought the HTC team that built the Pixel and Pixel XL, retrospectively making those truly and entirely “Phones by Google.” And the devices themselves, developed over an accelerated timeline, turned out to be really rather good, standing out with their exceptional camera performance and image processing.
Today, Google takes the next major step in its Pixel adventure, and the trickiest challenge I foresee for the web giant is in figuring out the prosaic aspects of producing and distributing as many of its new devices as people will want to buy. What the Pixel of 2016 demonstrated was a Google hardware division that wasn’t too far behind its mobile competition in terms of design, components, and, of course, OS performance and fluidity. With its outstanding camera, the Pixel could justify its premium price and its owners could forgive its shortcomings as a (sort of) first-generation device.
Google’s biggest hurdle to being taken seriously as a smartphone maker has already been overcome. Critics rate the Pixel devices highly, buyers are raving about their tangible photographic benefits, and the foremost question on people’s minds about the Pixel 2 is now when and where — or even if — they’ll be able to buy one. This is far from a trivial matter, and the way Google deals with its growth into a global hardware company is going to be instrumental to the development of Android and will affect the balance of power between it and Apple’s iOS.
Without Pixels in carrier stores, what does the quality of the devices matter? If people walk into their local phone shop and are confronted by a phalanx of Apple devices and a legion of Samsung ones, odds are that they'll end up buying one or the other brand. At the high end of the market, which is where Google wants to compete, the consumer’s choice is nowadays driven by the platform they are already on. So unless something changes, the majority of existing Android users will just stick with the latest Samsung flagship.
Google’s ultimate goal is to stand up to the iPhone with a Pixel that’s just as refined, just as full-featured, and just as innovative (if not more). But to get there, Google first needs to wrestle some retail shelf space away from Samsung, and that’s where Google must improve the most. Trying to obtain a Google Pixel has been hard by default for the entire year of its availability: people in such markets as Spain, Japan, and South Africa didn’t get the option to buy one at all. In the UK, Google agreed to an exclusive deal with local carrier EE, which meant switching mobile networks for Vodafone, O2, or Three subscribers keen to hitch a ride on the Pixel bandwagon. And as to the Pixel XL? It’s been in constantly tight supply, prompting my colleague Chris Welch to document his frustrations with the terrible job Google was doing of shipping its phones.
Securing a supply chain, manufacturing on time and on budget, shipping devices, and establishing distribution channels are the unglamorous tasks that ultimately make the substance of a hardware company. Google has already perfected the sales pitch, it already knows how to talk and appeal to its customers — but that slick sheen on the surface has to be backed up by a trustworthy operational backbone.
Am I confident that the Google Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL will be great phones? Yes. We’ve seen enough leaks of both devices; we know Google’s camera magic (augmented by unlimited free cloud storage for Pixel photos and videos) is a huge competitive edge; and we can trust Google to keep the best things about the original Pixel while smoothing down the rough edges. The question now is whether the people that want one of these great phones are able to obtain it. It’s been aggravating for me to write about the excellence of the Pixel camera and have readers respond by saying they wish they could spend money on one. Google’s biggest failure with the Pixel was its distribution. Ergo, the biggest potential area for improvement now is in the same spot.
The original Pixel quickly convinced reviewers like me, and judging by the satisfied feedback of existing Pixel owners, it convinced a small segment of consumers, too. Now it’s up to Google to convince mobile operators that carrying and promoting the new Pixels is a good idea, and to then inform and convince the rest of the consumer market. For carriers, the major warning sign hangs over whether they’ll have an assured supply of units to sell — in spite of not selling all that many, Google couldn’t keep up with demand for last year’s Pixels, but at least this year it has distributed the risk more broadly by using two manufacturing partners: HTC for the smaller Pixel and LG for the larger one.
The steps that Google has taken to improve as a hardware company this year haven’t really addressed its operational deficiencies. Google didn’t buy distribution expertise from HTC. It hired away Amazon’s hardware chief last year, but that’s someone who’ll help its industrial design and product quality rather than the tasks of negotiating with suppliers and carriers. Ultimately, it all rests on the shoulders of Rick Osterloh, the former Motorola boss who Google put in charge of its freshly inaugurated hardware division a year and a half ago. He’ll need to use his existing relationships and expertise to present Google’s best sales pitch to mobile carriers. He’ll also be responsible for making sure that Google produces more than a couple dozen XL units (because that phone is shaping up to be the vastly more desirable one).
For Google to be a legitimate, internationally recognized hardware maker, the Pixel 2 will need to be made available to all who want it. That’s a tall task, but Google usually learns fast from its mistakes, and if any company can break in and disturb the Apple-Samsung duopoly at the top of the smartphone world, that company would be Google.