Google readies Pixel for the masses, but are the masses ready for Pixel?

Scaling buggy hardware is easier than scaling software

Comment Industry sources have confirmed that Google is readying lower-cost Pixel smartphones for imminent launch.

Metadata spotted at the Google Play Store website supports the theory that the Pixel 3a models will be announced next month at Google's I/O conference.

Since rebranding its Nexus phones as Pixels, Google has been happy to copy Apple's exclusivity strategy of selling premium products to build the brand. The Pixel 3 went on sale at £739 and £869 (XL), although it's now heavily discounted.

The Pixel's camera is widely acknowledged to be the best on the market, thanks to years of progress in computational photography. It can now tap into a custom chip that accelerates the HDR+ process. Like its predecessor, Google offers a minimalist skin and monthly updates. Developers seeking access to early builds of Android also bought in.

But scaling up to meet the mass market will be a novel challenge for Google's product team – who now have to face far more picky customers.

The product line has been plagued with problems. The original (2016) Pixel had a notoriously faulty mic and a slew of software bugs – forgiven because it was regarded as a debut product. Pixel 2 phones went to sleep after accepting a call and the patch took months to arrive. Early buyers found off-colour screens (initially denied) and audio problems. Others found a persistent whining noise – even with Radio 4 turned off.

Last November we recklessly suggested that the Pixel 3's problems weren't as great as its predecessors'.

Google Pixel 2 XL: Like paying Apple-tier prices then saying, hey, please help yourself to my data


But the Pixel 3 had its own set of woes. The phone would crash when Instagram, Snapchat or any other third-party app attempted to use the camera. Months elapsed before Google finally addressed stuttering app startups last month. Bluetooth has been a perpetual pain. Outstanding issues today include poor or variable call quality and flashing screens.

Even on the Reddit Pixel owner forums, buyers express remorse: don't buy a smartphone for its camera. Some have gone back to the Pixel 2.

With 2,000 staff joining from HTC over a year ago, hardware problems should be diminishing (HTC itself has all but pulled out of smartphones, focusing on its Vive VR range instead).

"Google's $1.1bn acquisition of parts of HTC... does not seem to have made any difference," analyst Richard Windsor wrote in a scathing summary headed "Google is still not a hardware company". The continuing plague of problems "further reinforces my opinion that Google has no business selling hardware," he said, going on to recommend that Google abandons Pixel and license its world-class imaging algorithms to a selected partner, such as Samsung, instead.

But this would be fraught with political difficulties. Google owns the platform and now wants to own the products that use the platform, competing with its Android licensees. Bear in mind that it controls the third-party compatibility tests that decree whether a phone is "true" Android, and so qualities for the Google binaries, apps and app store. Picking Samsung would be picking a winner.

Instead, Google is doubling down. If Google can't improve its dreadful reputation for hardware, the public may not be as forgiving as the photography aficionados, tech enthusiasts and developers who have kept loyal to Pixel for its camera, despite all its faults. ®


In our Pixel 2 review last year, we discussed phone value in terms of the personal data that must be disclosed to Google. We reported that in some categories, Google's data collection can only be "paused", not halted, by the user. This would become a major news story later that year. Google has since declined to send us any more samples.

Other stories you might like

  • End of the road for biz living off free G Suite legacy edition
    Firms accustomed to freebies miffed that web giant's largess doesn't last

    After offering free G Suite apps for more than a decade, Google next week plans to discontinue its legacy service – which hasn't been offered to new customers since 2012 – and force business users to transition to a paid subscription for the service's successor, Google Workspace.

    "For businesses, the G Suite legacy free edition will no longer be available after June 27, 2022," Google explains in its support document. "Your account will be automatically transitioned to a paid Google Workspace subscription where we continue to deliver new capabilities to help businesses transform the way they work."

    Small business owners who have relied on the G Suite legacy free edition aren't thrilled that they will have to pay for Workspace or migrate to a rival like Microsoft, which happens to be actively encouraging defectors. As noted by The New York Times on Monday, the approaching deadline has elicited complaints from small firms that bet on Google's cloud productivity apps in the 2006-2012 period and have enjoyed the lack of billing since then.

    Continue reading
  • UK competition watchdog seeks to make mobile browsers, cloud gaming and payments more competitive
    Investigation could help end WebKit monoculture on iOS devices

    The United Kingdom's Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) on Friday said it intends to launch an investigation of Apple's and Google's market power with respect to mobile browsers and cloud gaming, and to take enforcement action against Google for its app store payment practices.

    "When it comes to how people use mobile phones, Apple and Google hold all the cards," said Andrea Coscelli, Chief Executive of the CMA, in a statement. "As good as many of their services and products are, their strong grip on mobile ecosystems allows them to shut out competitors, holding back the British tech sector and limiting choice."

    The decision to open a formal investigation follows the CMA's year-long study of the mobile ecosystem. The competition watchdog's findings have been published in a report that concludes Apple and Google have a duopoly that limits competition.

    Continue reading
  • It's a crime to use Google Analytics, watchdog tells Italian website
    Because data flows into the United States, not because of that user interface

    Another kicking has been leveled at American tech giants by EU regulators as Italy's data protection authority ruled against transfers of data to the US using Google Analytics.

    The ruling by the Garante was made yesterday as regulators took a close look at a website operator who was using Google Analytics. The regulators found that the site collected all manner of information.

    So far, so normal. Google Analytics is commonly used by websites to analyze traffic. Others exist, but Google's is very much the big beast. It also performs its analysis in the USA, which is what EU regulators have taken exception to. The place is, after all, "a country without an adequate level of data protection," according to the regulator.

    Continue reading
  • Google recasts Anthos with hitch to AWS Outposts
    If at first you don't succeed, change names and try again

    Google Cloud's Anthos on-prem platform is getting a new home under the search giant’s recently announced Google Distributed Cloud (GDC) portfolio, where it will live on as a software-based competitor to AWS Outposts and Microsoft Azure Stack.

    Introduced last fall, GDC enables customers to deploy managed servers and software in private datacenters and at communication service provider or on the edge.

    Its latest update sees Google reposition Anthos on-prem, introduced back in 2020, as the bring-your-own-server edition of GDC. Using the service, customers can extend Google Cloud-style management and services to applications running on-prem.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022