I don't think it meant to, but Google has backed itself into a corner with the anticipated Pixel 4a. The previous Pixel 3a was a smash-hit of a phone, doubling the company's phone sales amid some serious troubles. The 3a was so great it even earned our 2019 Smartphone of the Year accolade over the company's "flagship" Pixel 4 series. But based on what we've heard so far, I think the upcoming Pixel 4a could be a disaster for Google.
The news to date
Details regarding the anticipated Pixel 4a are sparse. We've seen what it might look like in some CAD-based renders, hole-punch front-facing camera and all. Physically, it's a lot like the previous 3a, but with a more modern screen and a square camera bump more reminiscent of the Pixel 4 — though still housing just one camera.
One rumor from YouTuber Dave Lee claims the Pixel 4a, unlike the previous 3a and 3a XL, will only come in a single size. That's a claim, we should note, that 9to5Google disagrees with based on information from its own sources.
Most recently, potential specs for a handful of "codename" devices have leaked thanks to our friends at XDA Developers. If you aren't familiar with the practice, Google tends to develop software to support specific hardware platforms identified by codenames. Some of these just end up being reference boards, but many of the fishier-sounding names ultimately manifest as Pixel devices, and three such names were just spotted.
Limited space for improvement
Based on what we know now, and comparing our expectations with the previous Pixel 3a and 3a XL, there's one basic question we have to ask: Realistically speaking, what can Google do to the Pixel 4a to make it better than the 3a? Unless it plans on increasing prices, there isn't a whole lot.
Most of the truly consequential improvements would hike the price too much
Don't get me wrong, the 3a wasn't a feature-complete device. There are a lot of individual things it was missing, but many of those omissions aren't the sort of thing that can be included at a mid-range price point. Benefits like wireless charging, better haptics, faster storage, an IP rating, a better quality/more uniform screen, and a higher-end chipset would all place it firmly in flagship or at least budget flagship territory — with a price to match.
Unfortunately, most of the truly consequential improvements would hike the price too much (and undermine the Pixel 4, more on that later). We know, based on the leaked renders, that the 4a isn't getting a telephoto camera. It probably won't have face unlock or Soli gestures. And the sort of "hidden" changes we wouldn't see based on leaks so far are likely to be too expensive outside minor tweaks. Google can't just toss in an 800-series Snapdragon without eliminating the price advantage — which, let's be honest, was the whole point of the a series.
The siren song of 5G
There is one way that Google could make the 4a a marketable improvement, even with a small price hike, and that's thanks to the apparent marketing magic of 5G.
Unless you're a follower of anti-vax-level pseudoscience, the allure of yet another G gets your city-congested, streaming-service-watching, IoT-connected blood pumping. Real-life mobile benefits are unlikely to be the life-changing experience for us all that 4G was, but it's all about marketing. Your old, pedestrian, 4G phone just doesn't compare anymore, or so the obsession with 5G would have you believe.
And 5G has been speculated to be a possibility for the 4a, based on some specs revealed by XDA Developers in their recent search through the AOSP (read: Android's public code). I can't overemphasize how much this is all still speculation at this point, but a device running a 5G-compatible chipset was spotted, and the timing is just about right for some Pixel 4a connections to be drawn.
If the Pixel 4a lands in a 5G variety, that might result in a price hike. Although Qualcomm is rumored to be drastically cutting prices on its 5G-integrated Snapdragon 765 to keep MediaTek at bay, it's unlikely that smartphone manufacturers won't see the extra feature as an opportunity to bump prices at least a little bit — also placing it in competition with the OnePlus 8, at that point. But with the actual benefits of 5G right now being few and far between, paired with the limited rollout of 5G networks here in the US, a 5G Pixel 4a would probably just be a gimmick at this point.
"Competing" with the flagship Pixel 4
By far, the biggest problem Google faces is cannibalizing its own sales. Any improvement over the existing 3a is going to place it in even more direct competition with the Pixel 4, and short of folks sold on the idea of face recognition and hand-waving music controls, I think it's a comparison the Pixel 4 is likely to lose. Worse, if the price for any of the 4a models rises (as 9to5 has speculated could happen), then it would place the 4a in direct competition not just in terms of features, but in price. That could result in disaster for both phones.
Any increase in price would pit it more directly against the company's ostensibly higher-end efforts
The Pixel 4 has been available at or below $600 pretty often, and with last year's 3a XL hitting $480, any increase in price would pit it more directly against the company's ostensibly higher-end efforts — not to mention the upcoming OnePlus 8. I'm not sure if the anticipated distinctions between the Pixel 4 and 4a (primarily the telephoto camera, facial recognition, 90Hz display, and a spec bump) will be enough to justify the difference in most consumers' minds.
A rising price for the 4a would also eliminate the a series' most significant advantage, and one of the reasons the phone is so frequently recommended: It's good, but it's cheap. In the case of the smaller Pixel 3a, for just $400 (often discounted to $300, and just $340 right now) you can get the Pixel's high-end software experience, plus all the vaguely magical Pixel-exclusive Assistant features like spam-fighting (optionally automatic) call screen, Live Caption, and transcribing Recorder. Will we feel the same at a higher price point? I doubt it.
When it comes to the Pixel 4a, Google has a hard fight ahead of it. Following up on the success of a genuinely good phone can be hard, and it's something Google had struggled with even with its flagship series, where money isn't a concern. With the Pixel 4a depending even more on price, I'm not sure that Google's often myopic vision can spot the route to a successful sequel.