By JR Raphael, Contributing Editor, Computerworld |
Not your average Android news — a diverse mix of advice, insight, and analysis with veteran Android journalist JR Raphael.
Do a little leisure reading about Google’s shiny new Pixel 7 phones, and you’re bound to encounter a handful of common conclusions:
As someone who’s studied, written about, and personally owned Pixels since the start — and the same with the Google’s self-developed Nexus phones before ’em — lemme tell ya: These fly-by analyses couldn’t be more inaccurate.
And, fittingly enough, they’re almost always put out there by people who don’t use Pixels themselves, have little to no connection to the thriving community of Pixel owners and enthusiasts, and more often than not are iPhone owners who try on their Android philosopher hats two to three times a year — only while observing the platform’s most high-profile and impossible-to-miss launches.
The reality of Google’s Pixel program is far less black and white. Yes, the phones do serve as a reference for Android development. Yes, they do provide a way to put Google’s software front and center. And yes, their reach has thus far been relatively limited.
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But to frame those factors as being the product’s defining qualities or to suggest that the resulting experience somehow isn’t meant for mass adoption — or that it hasn’t seen any significant uptick in interest since its inception six years ago — is completely misconstruing the situation. And it’s completely missing the mark.
You don’t have to look far to understand why.
To fully understand Google’s goals with its Pixel phones, we need to start with a quick trip back in time to when the Pixel brand first broke cover.
The year was 2016. Google had up until that point been focused on a product line known as Nexus — a mishmash smorgasbord of phones and other gadgets made by other manufacturers. The Nexus phones were usually based on existing products but then customized to Google’s specifications and shipped with Google’s software instead of the usual manufacturer-meddled mess.
With rare exception, Nexus phones were never truly meant for mainstream awareness or consumption. They were barely marketed, aimed mostly at Android enthusiasts and developers, and treated as reference devices designed both to guide Google’s own development of Android and to show other device-makers what Android could do.
From a 2016 Verge interview with Android executives:
“The idea was to show everyone how it should be done,” says Brian Rakowski, VP of product management for Android. “All the partners in the phone manufacturing space took it and built great products on top of it. Meanwhile, Nexus kind of trundled along at the same small scale.”
With that context in mind, it’s easy to see why outsiders continue to have that same impression with Pixels. But the Pixel brand was deliberately designed to be a pivot away from the Nexus strategy. Pixel phones are made by Google, with completely original designs. They feature not just a “pure” version of Google’s base Android software, as was typically the case with Nexus products, but rather a highly customized and specific software setup that’s overflowing with exclusive original features — features that are meant to provide a more helpful and all-around pleasant user experience and that don’t appear anywhere else.
But perhaps most significantly, Pixel phones are absolutely positioned to sell — at least, in theory. From that same 2016 interview, at the time of the first Pixel phone’s launch:
[Google hardware VP Rick] Osterloh knows that “We certainly aren’t going to have enormous volumes out of this product. This is very first innings for us.” Google’s metric of success for Pixel won’t be whether it picks up significant market share, but whether it can garner customer satisfaction and form retail and carrier partnerships that Google can leverage for years to come.
That last sentence is key. And while there’s little question that Pixel sales have grown more slowly than Google almost certainly wanted over the past six years, there’s also much more to the story than most of the internet’s rapidly released write-offs would lead you to believe.
First, let’s look at some cold, hard numbers. There’s no way around it: Google’s Pixel phones still represent a tiny droplet in the vast ocean of soggy smartphone sales.
But, critically, that droplet is expanding exponentially. It just started at a very small point.
As I last observed in 2019, Google’s share of the smartphone market has actually been growing for quite a while now — all while the overall smartphone market has mostly been shrinking.
Go, go, gadget quoting-machine:
The most recent such report came along just a couple weeks ago from analysis firm Counterpoint. Its freshly compiled data indicates that Google broke into the elite club of top five “premium smartphone brands” for the first time in both Western Europe and North America when looking at sales numbers throughout all of 2018. In North America, specifically, Google was the third most successful premium smartphone player, according to the company’s data — coming in from nowhere and outperforming everyone other than Apple and Samsung for that 12-month period.
A separate analysis from that same time found that Google’s Pixel brand was the “fastest-growing major smartphone brand” across the entire US market for that period — outperforming everyone, including Apple and Samsung, in growth for that time.
For deeper context yet, US smartphone shipments on the whole dropped by 23 percent during that same window, while Google’s Pixel shipments shot up by a whopping 43 percent.
And that trend has only accelerated.
This past May, for instance, market analysis firm Canalys found Google’s Pixel line had grown its North American market share by a hefty 380% from the first quarter of 2021 to the first quarter of this year.
In Q2, the Pixel expanded its reach again — this time by 230% year to year, according to that same firm’s research.
And lest you think that’s part of a broader market-wide growth explosion, get this: Smartphone shipments overall were down by 6% in that same time period as a result of “economic challenges, high inflation, and poor seasonal demand,” as Canalys observed.
The numbers speak for themselves:
Even the big dogs of smartphone sales, Apple and Samsung, managed only low single-digit growth in that most recent timeframe. Globally, the smartphone market shrank by 9% year-to-year during that same three-month period. And Google, remember, grew its total share by 230%.
Now, to be clear, the Pixel’s piece of the pie is still modest — a mere 2% of the overall North American phone market. But the growth trends have been almost shockingly consistent. And those sorts of trends are what matter the most over time.
Let’s not forget, too: That exponential Google phone growth is occurring despite the fact that Google makes a miniscule selection of Pixel models compared to the competition. It simply isn’t a parallel comparison.
And all of that’s to say nothing of the limited geographical regions where Google’s phones are sold, the limited retail store prominence those phones tend to receive compared to Samsung and Apple products, and the limited overall marketing Google engages in compared to its competitors.
When you take all of that into account, it’s positively mind-boggling that Google’s market share is growing at a pace that’s roughly 58 times faster than Samsung’s and 77 times faster than Apple’s.
Signs suggest Google’s goals for the new Pixel 7 and Pixel 7 Pro are even more ambitious, too, with supplier reports indicating the company’s working to double its phone sales for 2023 compared to this current year.
When a company doesn’t really want or expect to sell a device, it doesn’t hammer out deals to have the thing sold in stores and promoted by major carriers — just like Google generally didn’t back in the days of Nexus phones. It doesn’t orchestrate Super-Bowl-sized ad campaigns or create resources like the “Pixel for Business” website, which goes into intricate detail about exactly why the latest Pixels are the best options for enterprises and small companies alike. And it certainly doesn’t aim to double its sales from year to year and continue its trend of building both the brand and the ecosystem around its product at every possible path.
All said and told, it’s impossible not to look at what’s happening here and be reminded of a similar moment in mobile-tech history — a moment when a once-scrappy underdog slowly but consistently gained market share against all surface-level odds. Once again, in that moment, the tech-watching masses failed to look past those humble beginnings and see the forest for the trees.
That moment? The unassuming start of Android itself, way back in the early 2000s.
Some of us noted these same sorts of trends back then and were similarly ridiculed for daring to suggest the laughably small numbers of sales in those early years could one day add up to something, if the same sorts of patterns were to continue. It’s not an entirely equal comparison, of course, but so much of the same logic applies. And once more, it’s tough not to feel like we’re still seeing only the tip of the iceberg with Google’s ambitions and how far it could take this, if it manages to play its cards right.
So mark my words: Writing off the Pixel as a mere experiment or reference product is a major mistake. How far the Pixel line can go depends on how hard Google ends up pushing and how well it manages to overcome its ever-present challenge of widespread availability, effective marketing, and more than anything just making average people aware of its products’ practical advantages.
But the potential is there. The trends are shaping up. And as anyone who’s actually lived with a Pixel can tell you, Google’s phones provide an exceptional real-world experience that no other device-maker — within Android or without — has the resources to match.
Google’s laid the groundwork to do something really shape-shifting here. The only real question is where it goes next — and if it manages to maintain this momentum.
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Contributing Editor JR Raphael serves up tasty morsels about the human side of technology. Hungry for more? Sign up for his weekly newsletter to get fresh tips and insight in your inbox every Friday.
Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.
Copyright © 2023 IDG Communications, Inc.