Sadly, Pixel phones remain a tiny piece of Google's hardware strategy

Google CEO Sundar Pichai
Google CEO Sundar Pichai (Image credit: Android Central)

Anytime the CEO of a massive company in our industry speaks, we hang on every word — we had the opportunity to do just that with CEO of Alphabet and Google, Sundar Pichai, thanks to a fresh interview with The Verge. It's a well-timed interview, from our perspective, given the recent news of a shakeup in the top ranks of the Pixel team — and thankfully Pichai spoke specifically about Google's hardware business:

The last couple of years have been a major integration phase for us because we've combined our Google hardware efforts with Nest. We absorbed the mobile division of HTC. So it's been a lot of stitching together. And we have a wide product portfolio, too. So it's definitely been a building phase. We're super committed to it for the long run. Hardware is hard. And it definitely has components, which take real time to get it right, thinking about underlying silicon or display or camera or any of those tacks.

I'm not particularly impressed by the answer, if I'm looking at it from the view of someone who's interested in the advancement of its Pixel phones. It's very clear that Pichai sees the entire Google hardware business as important, but we didn't get anything to indicate that phones are a particularly important part. We have to remember that phones are just a fraction of its hardware business — there's Google Homes, Nest products, Google Wifi, Pixelbooks, Chromecasts, Stadia and more. Hardware as a whole is just part of Google's strategy for computing to begin with, and phones are just a small portion of that:

We think about our hardware efforts obviously in the context of our overall computing efforts and in addition to what our ecosystem is doing. So we take that into account. I do think it's important we build a sustainable business, financially, too. Because I look at the level of investment hardware needs, both in terms of all the technology R&D you need to do, the kind of supply chain you need to develop, as well as the go-to-market investments you need. So it's a deep investment. So to do it well, I think you have to do it with a clear financial sustainability goal.

Outside of mentioning that the Pixel 3a (opens in new tab) was an incredibly well-rated product and boosted Pixel sales overall (something Pichai's noted in earnings calls), he didn't really give us much to be confident about the direction of Pixels in particular. I understand that Google has a longterm view for developing many parts of the Pixel experience, as Pichai notes "it definitely has components, which take real time to get it right, thinking about underlying silicon or display or camera." And I get that "hardware is hard" — but this is Google we're talking about, with unbelievable resources and by all accounts a large team of incredibly talented people.

Google has a long outlook on hardware, but we seem to never get closer to the end product.

To Dieter Bohn's (one of the interviewers) credit, he attempted to push on the question further by pointing out that Google seems to constantly have a five-year view ahead for its burgeoning hardware business, which each year seems to just push another year into the future. We've heard this "it's hard, and we do want to make sure this is a financially viable and successful business" time and time again, with an expectation of multiple years to mature ... at some point it has to actually mature.

Google's CEO had a chance to make us more confident in the Pixel series, but we got a typically mundane non-answer once again. Pixel fans want to hear more than "we're super committed" — we want to know how you're committed. Are you committed to just making a Pixel phone every year? Or are you committed to actually making the Pixels better and better every year and pushing the smartphone industry? Are you committed to growing the Pixel's market share? It really isn't clear. All we know is that the Pixel line isn't dead. So that's good.

Google may be committed to Pixels internally, but it doesn't really show in the public eye.

Of course, it's tough to know just how much to look into statements from a CEO. Pichai is incredibly well spoken, and he knows exactly how to say the right things and not step outside of his lane into anything even approaching controversy. As the CEO of Alphabet as well as Google, Pichai isn't involved in the day-to-day operation of any of the individual business operations — particularly one with as little impact on the bottom line as the hardware business. From that perspective, Pixel fans should be happy he spent this much time talking about phones at all.

But as a Pixel fan myself, I would love to see a bit more conviction and reassurance that Pixel phones still mean something inside Google. Because the perception of the products and the company's emphasis on them from the outside is fading. I want to see, from a public perspective, that Google's committed to making great Pixels.

Andrew was an Executive Editor, U.S. at Android Central between 2012 and 2020.

15 Comments
  • the chicken makes a contribution to breakfast...the pig is committed
  • Why do they need to be huge, they are effectively just demonstrators to drive OEM innovation. Sometimes those ideas take off (MS Surface) and sometimes they don't.
  • What innovation are they driving? LOL
  • Certainly not battery innovation 🤣
  • Exactly. What idiot thought it was a good idea to put those ridiculously small batteries in their phones?
  • Software? The new Google Assistant went from being mostly cloud based (something like 100GB) to taking up 500MB of local storage and doing much more locally. That’s huge. They built a quantum computer. Also absolutely massive. The battery (and seemingly all Pixels) seem to have a “why did you do that?” moment for some reason. It really seems like more of a hobby than a hope unfortunately.
  • Pixels and innovation in the same sentence don't go together lol.
  • Computational photography? You know what the others are all copying now?
  • They don't have to be huge. But you'd like to see at least growth — Pixels aren't growing at all. But more importantly, Pixel fans want to see Google actually investing and moving the brand forward, whereas currently it feels like it's mostly at a standstill and making a lot of the same mistakes over and over again.
  • Totally agree. They’ve done some crazy stuff in software, but hardware seems to be lacking.
  • Google has always done amazing things with software, since joining the Nexus/Pixel fandom I've always hoped they do more on the hardware front, because its difference between good and great. Especially as phones begin to age, software can't make up for lack of RAM/storage.
  • I live in the Bay Area and have several Googler friends. Only 1 still uses a Pixel and they told me that most folks working at Google that they know use an iPhone. If they won't "dog-food" their own products why should we? I've owned every Nexus and Pixel product except the Pixel 4, and I'm patiently waiting for the 4a and 5. I borrowed a 4 from a Googler and I missed the fingerprint scanner, among other features.
  • Your solution is to buy a flagship that you don't replace annually. Why anybody would replace overpriced midrange phones annually like the Pixel is insanity.
  • And yet when Samsung phones age they perform like a mid range phone with all that extra bloatware err software "*features" and sadly the Pixels also age just as badly due to the anemic hardware, battery and low RAM put in their phones.
  • My Pixel 3a XL is running just fine after a year, despite all the 'experts' saying it should be like running through treacle by now. Google have done a great optimisation job on modest hardware, with a flagship level camera on a fraction of the price. Now I'm interested in what else is out there but I'm content to keep it if nothing takes me. Spending a grand on a phone will become niche, especially in these times.