During my briefing at Google's hardware division last week, I learned a fair bit about the new Pixel 3a from the team behind it. One message that team wants to send: Pixel 3a and 3a XL are not "one-off" devices. Google is committing - at least for the foreseeable future - to releasing affordable versions of its Pixel smartphones, presumably on an annual basis.
Google wouldn't confirm that it plans to keep the current release cadence for the "a" series, which has (almost certainly by design) given its "premium" phones a wide berth. My take is that this allows their features and capabilities to shine without having to answer for their appearance in two much cheaper - half price, even - handsets. Granted, that plan doesn't seem to have gone especially well, because the Pixel 3 and 3 XL simply aren't meeting Google's sales expectations. It's likely the Pixel 3a will cannibalize a fair bit of whatever momentum remains for Google's top-tier phones, but that's not necessarily a bad thing: the 3a absolutely gets Google back in the smartphone conversation in 2019 more quickly, and in a segment where it has precious few competitors in the US.
But by confirming that the company plans to keep on producing cheaper Pixels, Google is also setting an expectation that could be dangerous: that the most important features of the next Pixel phone are very likely to trickle down to an 'a' series device half a year later. And the price of entry will be much lower. I also think there's a real risk Google may have to walk back its one-to-one camera experience equivalence it's going to push hard with these phones, because my gut instinct is that the next generation of Pixel phones are likely to move to more complex and capable - and expensive - multi-camera arrays. The 3a and 3a XL already forego the likely relatively cheap ultrawide angle selfie camera of the 3 and 3 XL, so if the Pixel 4 picks up some costly new cameras on the rear, I'd have real doubts they'd make the transition to the budget versions of those phones. This is a lot of theorizing, I admit - but I think it's important to consider how Google plans to market and differentiate these phones compared to the premium Pixels, because in this first generation the differences (all of which you can read about here) aren't terribly huge.