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It sure looks like the Google Pixel smartphone lineup is about to get weird. Based on what we know so far, it looks like there will be a Pixel 4a, a Pixel 4a 5G, and a Pixel 5. A defunct Pixel 4a XL is out of the picture, and there was never even a leak suggesting the existence of a Pixel 5 XL to begin with. This has rightly left many bewildered: just what is Google trying to accomplish here? While I won't claim to have all the answers, I do think there's a lens worth interpreting this through, and that lens is Google's Silicon Valley rival, Apple.
Pixel 4a: The iPhone SE factor
Without a doubt, the iPhone SE is shaping Google's strategy with the 4a. While the phone was already well underway before the iPhone SE was announced, Google's apparent decision to pull the plug on the larger version of the phone feels decidedly reactionary, in that we now suspect Google will focus on the smaller phone at a lower price point with more storage. Aligning against Apple with a single SKU allows Google to make a stronger 1:1 marketing when comparing the 4a to the iPhone SE, and probably comes with significant supply chain savings for Google along the way. Google will "lose" what I believe are largely invisible customers: there are no other appreciably noteworthy large format, high-value smartphones in the US to begin with. Google competes only with itself in making a smaller and larger Pixel 4a.
The Pixel 3a came in two sizes—no more with the 4a
By taking on the iPhone SE more directly, Google is hoping that a narrative will emerge: Google did the iPhone SE better, cheaper, and — most importantly — gave customers a better camera experience and longer battery life. This playbook is unsurprising. Camera and battery were exactly what Google focused on in the Pixel 3a's marketing campaign, and I expect they will remain the banner features when the 4a is launched (... whenever that happens).
Google has long indicated its goal with the Pixel lineup is not to target its fellow Android OEMs like Samsung, but to peel away disgruntled iPhone users.
What Google probably hopes reviewers and customers will not focus on are performance, support lifetime, and ecosystem. The iPhone SE will be much faster than the Pixel 4a, it will be updated for a longer period of time (unless Google decides to up its commitment beyond 3 years), and it will seamlessly integrate with other Apple products like the iPad and MacOS. Google's counternarrative to performance will be AI: the Assistant is smarter, faster, and more capable than Siri. But I don't think that ends the discussion on performance, and I don't think it's a play anyone but Google's own marketing team will find convincing. Longevity and ecosystem are lost causes — Google can say what it wants about either, but the advantage plainly lies with Apple on both (and, in my view, on all three).
This puts the Pixel 4a in a distinctly tricky situation. While it will have a larger display, more modern design, and superior camera performance and battery life (these feel like well-supported predictions), Apple's remaining advantages are real. Google has long indicated its goal with the Pixel lineup is not to target its fellow Android OEMs like Samsung, but to peel away disgruntled iPhone users looking for a more open, Google-first experience. Nothing we know about the 4a suggests it will succeed any more than the 3a in actually achieving this goal. If anything, Apple is in a better position to take on the 4a in 2020 than it was the 3a in 2019 in that it actually has a price-competitive product to point to.
Pixel 4a 5G: A value play that is almost certainly doomed
I'm going to come out and say it: 5G is borderline actually pointless in the US right now. There will come a time when that is no longer the case, but I strongly suspect that time is, at earliest, late 2021 or early 2022. 5G may be here, but it's a decidedly unimpressive level of hereness. More Americans are (very incorrectly!) concerned about 5G's safety than they are about whether or not their next phone will support it—and remember, Americans are Google's primary customer base.
A Pixel 4a 5G makes effectively no sense in 2020. While carriers like T-Mobile are undoubtedly salivating over just about any opportunity to diversify their 5G portfolios, that is very different than asking whether consumers are actually interested in said portfolio to begin with. As coronavirus continues to keep most Americans away from unnecessary retail shopping and rampant unemployment ravages our economy, "I should get a 5G phone" is not a thought most people are going to be having in 2020.
More Americans are (very incorrectly!) concerned about 5G's safety than they are about whether or not their next phone will support it.
Google, once again, is in my belief responding to Apple. Reports suggest all tiers of the iPhone 12 will feature some form of 5G connectivity when they're released this year, including the radically downsized base model. Google wants a 5G-connected smartphone (again, likely at a lower price) that it can position against Apple's lineup, so that it can proclaim "5G doesn't have to cost an arm and a leg." From a marketer's perspective, this is a powerful piece of messaging: next generation technological equivalence, but at a lower cost. But again, this is almost certainly attractive to Google not because it has good data suggesting customers want such a phone, but because it has great data suggesting carriers like Verizon and T-Mobile do. As OnePlus can attest, that does not translate to actual sales success — 5G or not.
In my view, whatever Google launches as a "Pixel 4a 5G" will end up in the notorious no-man's-land of smartphones in the US: too expensive for anyone on a highly restricted budget, and not premium enough on feature set for anyone who actually wants a good phone. While the US may face an emerging mid-tier smartphone market, the emphasis there should be on "emerging": it doesn't meaningfully exist yet. Google's goal is to slot itself into a relatively empty section of the smartphone market in the hope that it can achieve momentum where other phonemakers are not currently focusing their efforts in the US, but this assumes it can get customers to the proverbial watering hole in the first place (a store—where almost every American buys their phones), let alone whether they'll take a sof drink of what Google has on offer. This doesn't even get into how a Pixel 4a 5G would compare on the merits to the iPhone 12, but we will know so little about it that I'm not yet inclined to speculate.
Pixel 5: A very tame wild card
All we meaningfully know about the Pixel 5 at this point is that it will have a Snapdragon 765 chipset. Everything else I've seen to date is of incredibly questionable quality or possibly outright fabricated. But if we continue with the supposition that Google intends to target Apple with each of its products, it's likely that the Pixel 5 will be positioned at whatever ends up being the successor to the iPhone 11, albeit possibly at a lower price.
With the Snapdragon 765 chip, Google won't have much of a leg to stand on for raw performance: the iPhone will be faster, play more visually impressive games, and smoke the Pixel in any on-device benchmark of meaningful relevance. That battle was over before it started. Google will probably be left to makes its stand on value, but it will probably be making that stand on a stepladder. At anything over $700, Google faces incredible headwinds from its Android rivals Samsung, OnePlus, and even LG (yes, I said LG, stop laughing). The Galaxy S20 has been discounted to $800 almost unendingly, the OnePlus 8 is $700 outright, and LG's 765-powered Velvet will probably clock in close to if not under $700, as well (it launched at €650 in Europe). Google will demand billing against the iPhone, but we all know what's going to happen: every review will make a comparison to one or more Snapdragon 865 flagships and the Pixel 5 will get creamed on basically everything but camera performance and the always-nebulous software experience.
gotta say, going from any Android phone not made by Google to a phone made by Google feels like taking off a pair of beer goggles (Samsung) or coming down off a caffeine bender (OnePlus). There are some things Google does very well, and keeping UX cognitive load balanced is one.
— David "bury me with my golden arm" Ruddock (@RDRv3) July 8, 2020
We know so little about the Pixel 5, but we know so much about how Google builds smartphones: "good enough" battery, RAM, and storage, and with an emphasis far more on hardware and software aesthetic than nuts and bolts smartphone stuff.
I really love using my Pixel 4 XL, honestly. The software is so clean, so thoughtfully designed, and I even enjoy the hardware design language. It is a genuinely enjoyable premium smartphone. And there is absolutely nothing I can say to anyone I know who is not a bona fide tech enthusiast that will convince them it's worth buying. "The cameras are marginally better than the iPhone's, except for video, where they're demonstrably much worse" is not a convincing sales pitch. The Pixel has been and remains a phone for Google fanboys, of which I am unashamedly one, but one who can recognize when he is being pandered to. I like being pandered to, but I'm not about to tell anyone else that said pandering results in objectively overall better products than Apple's, or even Samsung's.
Clearly, a period of transition
While the Pixel 5 remains a genuine mystery in many respects, I expect when the curtain falls that Google will not reveal a silver bullet to its smartphone woes, but a relatively modest step back from the "true flagship" space. Google clearly doesn't want to compete at the tippy-top of the smartphone market anymore, and I can't blame them. Their strategy wasn't succeeding on sales, and even long-term customer reception of the products seems tepid at best. It was time for change.
Companies are judged for the products they release now, not what they represent for their vision of the future.
That all said, I feel that two or three years from now, 2020 will be looked back on as the Very Weird Year for Google's smartphones. A year when everything started to change, and a new strategy started to take shape. While I've given my best effort to try and paint a picture of what that strategy looks like this year, I would be lying to you if I said I had any idea what it means for next year and beyond. I am genuinely confused by much of what Google is doing right now, and without a clear view of the horizon to look out to, it all makes me a little seasick as we sail on the good ship Pixel.
Unfortunately, I suspect much of the internet will not be so forgiving. Companies are judged for the products they release now, not what they represent for their vision of the future. Google's strategy outwardly makes little sense at the moment, and if I—someone writing about this stuff for a decade—am struggling to make sense of things, imagine what consumers will make of all this when (and if!) all these products finally land. Google is going to paint a very weird picture with Pixel in 2020 if all this comes to pass (again, big "if" emphasis), and I'm not sure the company's fans are going to love this new artistic direction when the finished portrait is hung.