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The curious case of the Pixel 4’s missing headphones

The curious case of the Pixel 4’s missing headphones


Why aren’t they in the box?

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Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales

As you might guess, I have more to say about the Pixel 4 even though the review and video are both voluminous. After John Gruber pointed out on Twitter that I forgot to mention that Google didn’t put USB-C headphones or an adapter in the Pixel 4 box in the review, I realized that I had a whole series of thoughts about it that have been rumbling around in my head all weekend. (I have also updated the review.)

In the spirit of this newsletter, which has a tradition of taking a small thing and showing how it is instructive in understanding a big thing, I’m going to dwell on headphones for a bit.

Ahead of the event where Google formally announced the Pixel 4, I once again asked the perennial question: is Google serious about hardware? The quality of the phone itself is only part of the answer. The other part is Google showing a real commitment to selling more of them.

There are lots of ways to show that commitment. The most obvious — and the one I’ve been focused on — is that it needs to put a real marketing budget behind the Pixel 4, especially now that it’s available on all four major carriers.

Beyond that, though, Google has one very important job: make it easy for iPhone users to switch. It is a very, very difficult thing to convince anybody to . Whether you think it’s because of iMessage lock-in, OS preference, brand loyalty, or all of the above — iPhone users tend to stay on their platform.

More than any other Pixel before it, the Pixel 4 seems almost custom-designed to appeal to iPhone users. It has the same face unlock system (minus, you know, the closed-eye problem). It comes much closer to matching iOS’ animation smoothness thanks to its 90Hz screen. Android 10 liberally “borrowed” the core gesture navigation mechanic from iOS. Hell, because it shares the square camera bump, the thing looks like an iPhone.

But I don’t think Google is going to make a big push to convince iPhone owners to switch — it may not even push as hard as it did last year with its “Phone X” ad campaign. Because if Google wanted to convince iPhone owners to switch, it would take a small hit on the Pixel’s profit margin (even if it’s negative to begin with) to make it easier to do so.

If Google was really serious about getting iPhone users to switch, it would have included USB-C headphones and an adapter in the box.

If you haven’t heard, Google isn’t including either USB-C headphones or a USB-C to 3.5mm dongle in the box with the Pixel 4. (There are headphones in the box in France and Australia due to their laws, apparently.)

It strikes me as a silly corner to cut, because iPhone owners are less likely than Android owners to already have a USB-C dongle or USB-C headphones. When I asked Google why, here’s what a spokesperson told me over email:

Most of our customers already use their personal audio accessories and, for those people, the extra in-box audio accessories end up going to waste. We’re also offering a $100 launch promo credit for purchases on Google Store so customers can get accessories they want.

(That promo credit ends on October 26th, by the way.)

Google is probably right that most people buying the Pixel 4 already have Bluetooth headphones, but that’s not exactly the point. A backup pair of wired headphones is still essential, I think, and it’s practically punitive for Google not to include them.

What are the chances that retail employees will warn potential switchers that they also need to get headphones? And then how will potential switchers feel when they open the box and discover that there are no headphones in the box — unlike every other phone? As a first time experience of the Pixel 4, the one-two punch of losing iMessage and not having an easy way to listen to music seems ...not ideal.

I’m not against the idea of not including accessories due to waste. In fact, I look forward to the day when we no longer expect to get AC adapters in the box because everything is powered by USB-C and we all have plenty of them. But in 2019, not including headphones in the box feels like a cut corner.

The feeling that Google is cutting corners is a problem that goes beyond just headphones. Look at any part of the Android web this week and you’ll find that a significant portion of the community has already soured on the Pixel 4. There’s a worry that the small storage and skimpy battery on the Pixel 4 doesn’t compare well to competition like the OnePlus 7T.

It’s not just Android fans who will be looking at the spec-to-price ratio, either. An iPhone 11 with 128 GB of storage and much longer battery life can be had for $749.

I think I understand why Google priced the Pixel 4 the way it did. It’s the first Pixel with face unlock, a 90Hz screen, and a radar chip. None of that is free. Plus, it’s totally fair for a company to charge a premium for a product that includes a premium camera and better software experience.

Those are all reasons why I didn’t ding the Pixel too hard for its price. (I’m also aware that Google has discounted every previous flagship Pixel on a regular basis and expect the same to happen with the Pixel 4.) So I’m not arguing that Google should be lowering the price on the Pixel because it doesn’t have headphones in the box.

Instead, I’m suggesting that omitting the headphones from the box is a tacit admission that Google doesn’t really think it’s going to get iPhone owners to switch. It’s targeting other Android users instead, users who’ve probably been using USB-C with their phones for some time.

I think that’s a missed opportunity. I don’t know that the Pixel 4 would have been able to get a lot of iPhone switchers this year — especially since Apple caught up on camera quality with the iPhone 11 and 11 Pro. But I do know that Google is going to have to try to get them sometime.

I’m probably thinking too hard what it means for Google to have left out the headphones from the Pixel 4 box. But the more I consider it, the more I believe that when it came to the decision about whether or not to include them, Google wasn’t thinking hard enough.

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