Skip to main content

Can Google finally get serious enough to take on the iPhone with the Pixel 4?

Can Google finally get serious enough to take on the iPhone with the Pixel 4?


If not now, when?

Share this story

If you buy something from a Verge link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Google is launching the Pixel 4 today — at least, it’s launching it more officially than the teasers it coyly tweeted before leaks took all the wind out of its sails. We know exactly what to expect. In fact, we know nearly everything except maybe just how good the cameras are. But there is one thing we don’t know, and it’s the thing we have been asking since the very first Pixel hardware.

Is Google serious about selling hardware now or what?

It’s a perennial question, one I know the Google hardware division team is getting a little sick of hearing. This is the fifth Pixel phone, after all, counting the Pixel 3A. Google acquired a chunk of HTC to make phones. It got T-Mobile, Sprint, and (presumably) AT&T on board for this release so it could have a nationwide US release on every major carrier instead of just exclusively on Verizon.

You can list out all of the reasons that Google should absolutely be done having to justify its hardware efforts or needing to convince us it’s in this for the long haul. But for every point you’d make, there’s a powerful and often more compelling counterargument.

The biggest counterpoint is, of course, that Google just hasn’t sold a ton of Pixel phones. This is mysterious to me in part because the formula for selling a lot of Android phones is not mysterious at all, especially if you’re willing to take a loss on your hardware business: market the everloving hell out of them.

That is what Samsung did. It made flashy commercials, some of which were highly produced Super Bowl ads. It paid to have Ellen DeGeneres use its phone to take a selfie at the Oscars. Five or six years ago, the Galaxy didn’t become the de facto anti-iPhone because it was the very best Android phone — it was not — but because it was the most visible Android phone.

Google has plenty of Pixel ads, but it hasn’t engaged in a full-on expensive, multiyear media blitz.

Will this year be any different? We’ll see, but I doubt it. Despite the fact that it’s on all four major US carriers, I don’t think we’ll see the Pixel 4 suddenly grab more marketshare. A recent report claimed Pixel phones only made up 5 percent of Verizon’s sales.

Google’s Pixel 2 XL had many problems with its display at launch.
Google’s Pixel 2 XL had many problems with its display at launch.
Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Another important counterpoint: too many Pixel models have had maddening hardware or software issues. There were screen problems in the Pixel 2 XL. The Pixel 3 and 3 XL continue to have memory management issues to this day. Cameras have lost photos. Bluetooth has been flaky. Microphone quality has been unreliable to the point where Google has had to pay out settlements in class action lawsuits.

The only reason those issues weren’t apocalyptic for Google’s brand is that there aren’t that many people affected by them. But flagship phones that command flagship prices shouldn’t have the kinds of issues that have plagued some Pixel models.

Then there are the Pixel 4 leaks.

Look, leaks happen to everybody. But part of being a top-tier phone maker is getting more scrutiny and more people trying to find details about your products. Initially, Google looked like it had a savvy strategy. It tweeted out a confirmation that it was working on the Pixel 4 in June. It later added confirmation of Project Soli and face unlock.

I continue to believe those were smart moves. Why pretend like the leaks don’t exist or that your phone is a deep dark secret when it’s really not? The problem wasn’t Google’s tweets. It was everything else.

The number of and detail within the leaks is an embarrassment for Google

If you want a sign that Google hasn’t matured as a hardware company, look no further than all OF those leaks. Yes, it’s possible some of the phones out there were straight-up stolen, but everything you could think of has been photographed, put on video, and written about. There’s also a full hands-on with the Pixelbook Go out there.

It’s amateur hour.

Lucky for Google, the embarrassment of the past few months can be wiped away by releasing a really great set of products. There was a certain amount of swagger to Google’s tweets pre-announcing its own products, but as I wrote back in June, they significantly raised the stakes:

More than anything else, Google needs to stop quietly suggesting that it’s still new at this hardware thing and really ramp it up. After four years, it’s time to start selling in volume, start making phones that are directly competitive with the iPhone on every metric, and stop everybody from wondering if selling hardware is just a side business, just a hobby.

This year, it’s go big or go home time for the Pixel.

That time has arrived. In the intervening months, we’ve seen stellar phones like the OnePlus 7T come in at price points that Google seems unlikely to match. That means the Pixel 4 will need to impress to justify what I expect will be a higher price than many of its Android competitors.

The Pixel 4 will need to justify a higher price than many of its Android competitors

Google has to find a way to reintroduce a phone that we all feel like we already know after all of those leaks. Then it has to find a way to sell more of them. Oh, and it has to make a good, reliable phone.

So even though you might know a ton about the Pixel 4 already, you don’t know if Google really is going to do what it needs to do to make the Pixel 4 successful. In other words, today’s keynote is a great chance to prove that Google is serious about hardware.

Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. For more information, see our ethics policy.

What to expect at Google’s event

The next Big Tech battleground is your ears

Dan Seifert is right about this being one of the reasons Google needs to make its own wireless earbuds, but it still gives me a sad: “Truly wireless earbuds often provide the best experience when they are paired with devices made by the same company.”

Google’s 2019 Pixel event: all of the rumors, news, and announcements

Here’s a good place to follow along today once the live blog is over. We’ll post all of our Google stories here.

More news

Next year, new space missions will test technologies to fix busted satellites in orbit

Loren Grush rolls in and makes everybody who thinks they have hard tech problems here on Earth feel bad yet again:

Designing a spacecraft that can catch up to and dock with a broken satellite is no easy feat. For one thing, these satellites are zooming overhead at thousands of miles per hour, making them difficult to approach. Additionally, practically all of the satellites that have been sent into space weren’t designed to be caught and repaired. They don’t have appendages for spacecraft to latch on to, so satellite servicing vehicles will have to come up with creative ways to grapple a satellite that’s run out of fuel. And if a satellite suffered some kind of catastrophic failure, it’s possible it broke into pieces, making it even harder to grab.

Microsoft’s xCloud preview is now live in the US, UK, and Korea

Microsoft is officially launching its Project xCloud preview today for Xbox users in the US, UK, and Korea. The software giant has started inviting people to participate in the beta, with game streaming limited to Gears 5, Halo 5: Guardians, Killer Instinct, and Sea of Thieves during the initial preview phase.

Faraday Future founder files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy

You have to admit that Faraday Future has been incredibly innovative. They’ve made it possible to watch a car wreck for literally years. Sean O’Kane explains the stakes. I don’t see a single thing that could go wrong with this plan. (i.e. it’s not just one thing that will go wrong.)

Before proceeding in court with Chapter 11, though, Jia is offering to satisfy those debts through a trust backed by the value of his ownership stake in Faraday Future. This trust will only pay out to creditors if and when the startup goes public.

Samsung launches Android 10 beta for Galaxy S10 devices

A little over a month ago, I argued that there was no way Google could solve the Android update problem because of issues inherent to the ecosystem. Now here comes Samsung, trying to prove me wrong! It’s still late compared to iOS and still a beta, but it’s a month earlier than Samsung pulled off last year. Maybe Project Treble really worked.

OnePlus CEO explains why there’s no 5G version of the 7T Pro

I cannot emphasize this enough: do not buy a 5G phone right now. OnePlus was right not to bother making one this year.

Microsoft’s latest Surface Book 2 update fixes its dreaded Nvidia GPU bug

Microsoft has also had a very bad year for software updates. Glad this is finally fixed.

Apple’s iPhone SE 2 will start at $399, Ming-Chi Kuo predicts

That seems like a very good — and not very surprising — price. I know fans of smaller phones are pre-disappointed, and I don’t blame them, er, us. I guess the real question is: do you care more about having a small phone or about having the Apple ecosystem? Because there are modern, smaller Android phones out there.


Dell’s latest XPS 15 has a speedy processor and gorgeous display, but it isn’t a slam dunk

Eero’s latest router system is simple to use and less expensive than before