Pixel 4

Stop me if this sounds familiar: It's a couple weeks before a Pixel launch, and a relentless campaign of leaks has outed almost all of Google's secrets. A geyser of illicit smartphone knowledge has opened up in the past week, vomiting forth (among other things) a full Pixel 4 spec sheet, high-res renders, lifestyle images, sample photos and detailed explainers of how the new hardware will work.

It's become something of a running theme, with the Pixel 3 enjoying a similarly exhaustive leaking twelve months ago. (Remember that phone got into the hands of eastern European bloggers some four months before the street launch.) Same deal for the Pixel 3a, which we first discussed as the "Pixel 3 Lite" almost a year ago, well ahead of its eventual release date. The Internet leaking the crap out of a Pixel phone isn't new. In fact, it's rapidly turning into an annual tradition.

Google's leaky boat gives us a good opportunity to examine how much leaks of new products actually affect the crucial buzz around their eventual launch. The company's blasé attitude towards leaks, highlighted by its publication of its own Pixel 4 imagery back in June, and recent billboards in Times Square shows a belief that a slow trickle of information leading up to launch is far from a bad thing.

The attitude towards leaks has changed a lot in recent years.

And that makes sense. As a smaller player in the smartphone space (compared to a Samsung, Apple or Huawei), Google benefits from free publicity when leaks happen far more than it's damaged by having its secrets revealed. The same is not quite true for a company like Samsung and Apple, which like to tightly control their secrets -- though even Samsung's efforts to frustrate leakers haven't stopped every Galaxy phone ever from breaking cover on Twitter long before DJ Koh unveils them on stage.

Six or seven years ago, the big names in smartphones would go to extraordinary lengths to disguise their upcoming products and keep control of the messaging around them. The fear of God was put into employees with access to unreleased prototypes. Devices were strapped into big plastic "lunchbox" enclosures that looked like the offspring of a pelican case and the bottom of a shoe to prevent leaks. Multiple device designs might even emerge to throw curious outsiders off the scent.

But today, leaks are rather viewed as an inevitability. CAD renders from factories in China or Vietnam regularly make their way out onto social media, allowing folks like @onleaks to turn them into credible representations of the final product, often months ahead of time. At the same time, the inimitable Evan Blass practices his craft as diligently as ever. In the old days, phone maker PRs openly bragged about fighting leakers with lawyers, and their companies often followed up on those threats.

Google leaks are everywhere. EVERYWHERE.

Google has the resources to stop leaks if it wants to. Indeed, many parts of the tech giant manage to hide their secrets very well indeed. The hardware division, I'm forced to conclude, just doesn't really care that much if its stuff leaks ahead of time. If it does, it's additional publicity at the cost of a slight loss of control. And if the end product is good enough, then the broader phone-buying public will still be waiting with open wallets.

Other odds and ends for a working weekend:

  • Bad new for anyone hoping to run Google apps on a Huawei Mate 30 anytime soon, as the mysterious LZPlay app vanished into a puff of smoke earlier this week, following an exposé from a security researcher. Huawei is keen to emphasise that the phone doesn't ship with GMS, and instead focus on its efforts to build its own ecosystem. Yet the cold, hard truth is that if it wants to sell Android phones in the West in 2019 (or even 2020), it needs the reach of the Google ecosystem. Otherwise, the Mate 30 (and likely the P40 as well) are DOA.

  • As for the Mate 30 Pro itself, which tragically is an excellent phone held back by the current restrictions placed on Huawei, we'll have a review (of sorts) going live next week. Given all the uncertainty around the phone, the ease (or otherwise) of sneaking Google apps back onto it, and the quality of experience if you do that versus buying a certified Google Android device, it makes sense not to rush to any verdict. That said, I've recently moved into another phone as my daily driver, and I'm already missing the Mate's battery life and camera, which are among the best I've ever seen from a smartphone. With Google certification, this would be a strong candidate for phone of the year. Without it? Well, direct your attention to the back of the last bullet point.

  • This is not a good look for Google. The NY Daily News's report plays into the narrative of Google as a data-hungry monster, deceitfully gobbling up personal data. If Google, or a company acting on its behalf tried something like this in the EU, it'd likely find itself on the wrong side of the law. This will be a subject Google has to address as it unveils the Pixel 4's next-gen face unlock technology.

  • Happy Halloween from the Google Graveyard. Give it until maybe Halloween 2021 before we see Wear OS slip into the sweet embrace of the crypt?

  • The idea of the Surface Duo is rather more wild than the reality of the product itself. A phone from Microsoft? An Android phone? With a Google search bar? For those of us who remember the heady days of Nokia Lumia Windows Phones, it's almost unbelievable. Yet we're a year out from launch, and much about the product itself remains unclear. The launch is more than a full year away, likely with a very different set of internal specs. Plus its large bezels, lack of rear cameras and clunky hinge may turn off buyers when placed next to a second-gen Galaxy Fold or Huawei Mate X.

That's it for now. I'll catch you guys again in time for Guy Fawkes.

-Alex