A limited Google Pixel 5a launch may be a smarter strategy than you think

Google Pixel 4a
Google Pixel 4a (Image credit: Ara Wagoner / Android Central)

As reported last week, Google is drastically scaling back the Pixel A-line this year. Rather than the relatively wide launch like the Pixel 4a of last year, it's launching the new Pixel 5a 5G in only two countries — the U.S. and Japan. Even for Google's modest Pixel ambitions, this is unlikely to be a good sign. But rather than dwell on the doom and gloom scenarios, there are some things we can take away from Google's revised strategy.

First and most obviously, the Google Pixel 5a is launching. Despite the chip shortage that's plaguing the world, the company is going ahead with this. If Google did want to scale back on its hardware ambitions and only focus on one device, it had the perfect opportunity to cancel the Pixel 5a. It didn't even need to comment on the Pixel 5a rumors. After all, reports of the Pixel 4a XL being canceled did nothing to stop the Pixel 4a 5G from launching (and Google didn't comment on those rumors either). That Google did speak up means that the Pixel A-line is still important in Google's overall strategy.

Google Pixel 4a 5G

Source: Hayato Huseman / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Hayato Huseman / Android Central)

So what could that strategy be? Google is likely under no illusions at this point about the sales viability of the Pixel line, and dropping out of markets seems a strange way to go about it regardless.

When we spoke to Techsponential's Avi Greengart about Google's odd move, he told Android Central:

We don't have complete information on how well Google's Pixels are selling, but I'm confident that no Pixel variant sells as well compared to Samsung's Galaxy A or Galaxy S. Google can also be forgiven for focusing limited component availability on the markets where it does most of its volume. While Google certainly wants to expand its global footprint, it cannot afford to lose momentum — and carrier attention — in the U.S.

When one considers that Japan is the other market that Google kept the Pixel 5a this year, it becomes a little clearer why Google dropped out from the markets that it did, and why it stuck to the ones that it did.

Talking about the A-series in general, Android Central's Jeramy Johnson opined:

[The "a" series] is about delivering a flagship (or near-flagship) level software experience and cameras capable of outperforming phones that cost hundreds of dollars more. As someone who has access to a lot of great devices, I still chose the Pixel 4a as my primary phone.

In other words, the Pixel-A series fits the demographic of "really good Android phone that's cheap and has a great camera." In those markets that Google has pulled out of — the UK, Spain, etc — you'll find that niche already filled in by other Android OEMs who offer cheap phones that are either as good or even better than the Pixel. Whether it's by the likes of value-oriented brands in Xiaomi, Oppo, or even more premium ones like Samsung, the Pixel "A" hasn't quite been as competitive as it could be over the past year. You could argue the software experience sets it apart, but a comparison of sales lays to rest that line of reasoning.

Samsung Galaxy A52 vs. Galaxy A72

Source: Apoorva Bhardwaj / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Apoorva Bhardwaj / Android Central)

Now then, if you were to look over to Japan or the U.S., it's a little less rosy of a picture. When it comes to Japan, the country has never quite fallen in love with Chinese phones (though that's possibly set to change). Samsung, for its part, had to pull its branding from its phones for a time to attract sales, so you don't need me to tell you that it's not seeing the same levels of success there as it does in other countries.

Meanwhile, an intense distrust of China lingers in the U.S., and it's unlikely that Chinese OEMs will break into the U.S. market in the current climate. In other words, there are market gaps in both countries that the Pixel A-series slots into, and other international spaces where it makes strategic sense to retreat temporarily.

Pixel 4a Alex Camera Water Ducks

Source: Alex Dobie / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Alex Dobie / Android Central)

Google's staying where it's needed and leaving where it's not. Google isn't obviously going to leave its home market, and the deal with T-Mobile could help replicate Verizon's earlier deal that bolstered the first Pixel. Greengart noted:

All large Chinese brands have looked beyond Europe to the U.S. as a way to expand beyond Asia, but most have found it difficult to break into U.S. carriers. Google has long had at least some distribution at U.S. carriers, and recently gotten a commitment from T-Mobile to carry the full Pixel line, so that is another reason for Google to prioritize the U.S. market.

Of course, Google does control Android as a whole. That does seem obvious and not worth mentioning, right? What often gets lost in discussions about Google and Pixels and markets and all that is that even if Google fails to capture one market or the other, its partners can still do so. The Pixel 3a was important when cheap Android phones were crap, the 4a kept that importance when its competitors had poor cameras. With the Galaxy A52 5G and Redmi Note 10 around, the cheap Android phone experience is legitimately good. In the midst of a chip shortage, Google doesn't need to work harder than it has to.

Michael Allison