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Top members of the Pixel team leaving Google isn't purely negative — maybe it needed fresh leadership

Rick Osterloh
Rick Osterloh (Image credit: Android Central)

While we're all waiting for the Pixel 4a launch, and salivating for any Pixel 5 rumors, a new report from The Information has given us a look into what's been happening behind closed doors in Google's Pixel team — and on the face of it, it's not good. Mark Levoy, one of the biggest champions of Google's camera efforts, and Mario Queiroz, general manager of Pixel, have both left the company in the last 6 months.

It's completely understandable that there would be departures from the Pixel team, even at high positions — look, no matter how much some of us may love the Pixel lineup, it's been a disaster in terms of sales. Pixels certainly receive an enhanced scrutiny considering they're coming from Google, which is a massive company that makes Android, but even if you're generous with your assessment it's easy to find major flaws in each of the generations.

But news about a few high-level departures doesn't have to spell more doom and gloom for Pixel phones or their fans — there's still plenty of positivity here.

Camera can continue to be a strength

Source: Android Central (Image credit: Source: Android Central)

Losing someone as smart and clearly important to Google's camera strategy as Levoy is obviously a tough one to swallow. Over the past 5 years, Levoy's team created some of the most important advancements in the Pixel's photography experience, including HDR+, Night Sight and single-lens Portrait Mode — all of the features that have everyone holding the Pixel in the highest regard for smartphone photography.

But while Levoy was, by many accounts, the person leading the Pixel line's excellent cameras, he was certainly backed up by a whole host of other incredibly smart people. Levoy was an engineer at Google, just like so many others — he wasn't a dictator or solitary operator, but the head of a wider team filled with incredibly smart people that were involved every step of the way. Google's AI blog is filled with incredible posts from brilliant individuals on Google's AI and research teams that have developed new machine learning, AI and computer vision technologies that make their way into Google's consumer-facing camera software. These people are still at Google, and all of the developments made during Levoy's tenure remain to be continued and improved on moving forward.

Had Levoy not taken such a prominent place on stage in Google's Pixel 4 launch event — his first major appearance of the sort — this news may not have made the waves it did. Levoy is a big loss, there's no way around that, but to think that the Pixel's camera team is somehow now rudderless is completely baseless.

Battery life will be a weak point, until it isn't

Source: Andrew Martonik / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Andrew Martonik / Android Central)

Levoy's name rose in the public view more recently given the Pixel's focus on camera, but former VP and general manager of Pixel, Mario Queiroz, wasn't as widely known outside of his appearances at Google I/O. But that doesn't mean he had less influence — Queiroz was deeply embedded in the development of every Pixel phone, having been at Google for nearly 15 years, and was at the top ranks that launched the Google TV, Chromecast, Google Home, Google Wifi and Stadia.

With Queiroz leaving, it's easy for the first reaction to be, like with Levoy's departure, that the Pixel team be without one of its core pillars. But as I noted from the start: is that really necessarily a bad thing? The Pixel has had its fair share (or more) of systemic problems, chief among them being battery life. Under Queiroz's management, every single Pixel had subpar battery life, with the Pixel 3 and 4 (and even the XL versions) being particularly weak compared to the competition.

Ultimately Rick Osterloh is still head of Google's hardware, and he knows Pixel battery life is bad.

Ultimately Rick Osterloh is still the SVP in charge of Google's hardware, so the Pixel lineup is likely to stay on a familiar pathway. That means that even when new people come into the ranks, the details may change, but the direction isn't likely to. But with reports of Osterloh's disappointment in the Pixel 4 line's battery life, and Queiroz no longer in the picture, perhaps we could actually see an improvement in this area.

The question here is in Osterloh's leadership, not necessarily who's working under him at the moment. Why did he let the Pixel 4 get all the way through development with clearly weak battery life and not make a change? Was it too late? Was he given promises from his team that didn't come to fruition? We'll probably never know, but whenever there's a change in personnel there's a chance for improvement. So while there are unknowns here, one thing we know (again, based on reports, at least) is that Osterloh understands the Pixel 4's battery was subpar. Though it doesn't take a genius to figure that one out, you just have to use it for a couple days, it's important that Osterloh has it on his radar.

At the head of Google's hardware, Pixel phones aren't Osterloh's only area of responsibility — he's also overseeing Nest, Home, Pixelbook, Stadia and more, and while Pixels are obviously an important part of that ecosystem it can be argued it isn't the most important. Let's just hope that whomever fills in the ranks underneath Osterloh on the Pixel team can hear the directive loud and clear: the last Pixel's battery life was bad, and it's unacceptable for the Pixel 5.

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

17 Comments
  • It doesn't exactly create confidence in the Pixel future though. The camera was one of the few truly outstanding features. The Pixel line has been mediocre on nearly every other feature. Google either needs to devote the real resources to making it a flagship, or just sell it as a midrange phone at a midrange price.
  • If he goes to another team it's good for that team. As long as Google has the work that he's done than it's all good and picture quality will be just as good
  • My point is that Levoy wasn't the only person making Google's camera software great. There are still tons of very smart and talented people there.
  • Maybe bring someone in that get a good carrier deal. ;)
  • Isn't the pixel now sold at all 4 now 3 carriers in the US?
  • Rick Osterloh needs to go. The fact that he is in charge but didn't know until right before release that the Pixel 4 had bad battery life shows a lack of leadership and vision. No one is steering the ship.
  • I blame Mark Levoy on insisting that the Pixel 4 line doesn't need UltraWide angle. I disagree with his assertion because he was arrogant when he looked straight at the camera and basically said that they don't think I need it. Even though I enjoyed the UltraWide lens on both S10+ and Note10+ , I hated the picture quality. I thought that Pixel had a great chance to capitalize on that mistake and provide the reference Pixel standard for the Android industry. Even the iPhone 11 had a good UltraWide on offer, and that left the Pixel struggling to compete.
  • Pixel isn't referencing anything like the Nexus line did though. Manufacturers don't look to the pixel for stuff. They see it as competition.
  • Rick Osterloh did ... not great at Motorola. After selling Motorola - which was bleeding money - to Lenovo, Osterloh slides over to a "SVP of hardware" position that didn't exist before. And really isn't that ... well sensible to begin with because "hardware" includes Android, Android TV, Chromecast, ChromeOS, Nest, Home, WiFi, Earbud etc. products that aren't even in the same division and often are at odds/cross-purposes (Android vs ChromeOS, Chromecast vs Android TV) or nonexistent (no Google Android TV product since 2014, no Google Wear OS product since ... ever). The marketing has been nonexistent and the strategy ... bizarre. Whose idea was it to try to compete with Apple and Samsung on "premium" pricing (a strategy that hasn't worked well for Samsung)? "Premium" pricing while still offering decidedly lesser hardware? Oh, the best software experience! Which means apps and services that everyone else is going to get in 6 months anyway. And only guaranteeing updates for 3 years when Apple guarantees them for 5? But hey, we are going to have the best camera! (Says us ... and by our standards.) How many people are going to choose a mediocre - and smaller than other flagships - screen, poor battery and mediocre performance for a great camera? Did they focus group any of this? Do any market research? Even an area where they had something good going in hardware: Chromecast. Amazon and Roku put a nip in that by coming out with Fire Sticks and Roku Sticks that are usually cheaper than the Chromecast - and much cheaper than the Chromecast Ultra - and Google does nothing. They don't even come out with an Android TV stick that has the same internals as the Fire Stick even though they run the same OS. And instead of coming out with their version of the $50-$75 "Mini" consoles that Nintendo, Sega and everyone else is moving millions of as an Android TV device to launch Stadia - which would have allowed people to use any Bluetooth or USB controller they already had handy - they launch Stadia with a special controller that needs to connect to a Chromecast over Wi-Fi. Another thing ... launch Stadia with Android TV and you can stream your existing Steam Library as well as play Android TV games. (Why isn't Google Play Plass - a great way to get Android TV games - included with Stadia? Again ... Stadia and Android TV are different division which Osterloh "manages".) So instead of launching a product that allows people to play the games that they have already purchased (on Steam) and hundreds of Android TV games (more like dozens but give me a break ... of Google had a real hardware chief with a real hardware strategy they would have worked to get UI/controller support for the main games years ago) people who sign up for a monthly fee to play Stadia have like 40 games. Most of which are either glorified mobile games or very old games. So yeah, the two guys who got let go were TOTALLY everything wrong with Google's hardware marketing, strategy and product design. Things will TOTALLY get MUCH BETTER now. Starting with a Pixel device that will have the Qualcomm 768G, cost what a midrange device with that SOC should cost (because those of us who don't have Verizon or Google Fi will have to pay full price upfront) have good screens and battery life. But hey, we all know that none of those aren't going to happen because if Google wanted someone who could make it happen they wouldn't have just shifted their Motorola guy over instead of hiring someone from Apple, Samsung or Huawei.
  • I'll take a lessor camera for a bigger battery.
  • I haven't been happy with any of the Pixel devices. The Nexus devices were better... Even the Nexus S and Nexus 6 were better than every Pixel phone. I welcome this change.
  • Sucks you haven't liked any Pixel. Just curious why do you think the Nexus s and 6 were better? Both were pretty much at premium Price. Obviously the pixels blow them out of the water today because the gap between technology available back then and today. IMO the pixel line is the butterfly and the Nexus line was the caterpillar lol.
  • Not sure I can agree there. The Nexuses were filled with compromises, and had a lot of their own problems.
  • No way was the Nexus 5 or even the 6 better in any of than the Pixels, now you're just trolling especially since the Nexus 6 was a terrible phone in nearly every aspect with a mediocre camera poor battery life (no change there) sndbso on no, just no, for me the Pixel 2 series was their best devices and even they had problems but it was the regular Pixel 2 that again suffered from Battery life Problems because Google was very stingy with batteries thinking they could emulate Apple in battery but then Google doesn't have Apple's prowess in getting the best battery life from it's hardware so that was never going to happen.
  • Without restating the obvious that some here have eloquently stated maybe Osterloh was under pressure and because of poor leadership in the hardware division affecting revenue and sales on his products decided to shift blame and throw someone under the bus. That's usually how it works in corporate bureaucracies. As a previous pixel 2 owner who has moved on to another brand, I don't see anything soon to improve on it's past dismal record and it may take some time if at all.
  • Clearly, they fired the wrong guy.Rick Osterloh should have been up-to-the-minute on every detail of the Pixel’s development, and certainly Battery Life. For him to have ranted and raved about the Pixel 4 after the fact is poor leadership. A strong leader takes the blame for problems under his watch and doesn’t Point fingers saying “I’m not responsible — It’s that guy!” Temper tantrums may be understandable in some cases, but this particular tantrum feels like it was leaked to the press by the ranter.
  • I think it is a positive, they have missed an open goal 3 years running now. What they need to do is not rocket science the real question I have always had is do they want to risk upsetting other OEMs by doing it?