Why the next Google Pixel should be a program, not a phone

Maybe #teampixel should expand its team.

pixel 4 white
Christopher Hebert/IDG

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After four generations, billions of dollars, and celebrity camera-testers, Google should be at the top of its Pixel game. Instead, the general consensus is that the Pixel 4 is the worst handset Google has ever made.

It’s not for a lack of ideas. The Pixel 4 is packed with next-gen and forward-thinking features the likes of which no Android phone has ever seen. There’s a tiny radar chip that detects your motions. A new Assistant that responds faster than ever. And at long last, a true Face ID competitor.

It’s everything we want and expect from a Pixel phone, at least in theory. From day one, the Pixel phone has been a showcase for the latest and greatest AI, computational photography, and machine learning features, pushing Google’s software in fresh new directions while carving new avenues for Android.

There’s just one problem: The phone gets in the way. It’s not just the uninspired design. All of the problems with the Pixel phones—OLED burn-in, disabled microphones, smudgy screens, Bluetooth drop-outs—have stemmed from hardware issues. Some have been fixed through updates, others through manufacturing tweaks, and some never at all. At some point we need to admit: Google just isn’t very good at making phones.

pixel 4 display Christopher Hebert/IDG

The Pixel 4’s great ideas are overshadowed by its hardware issues.

But it is good at everything else. Without Google, our phones wouldn’t be nearly as smart or capable as they are. The Pixel is the epitome of that vision, a handset that encapsulates the essence of Android in the purest way. When Google Assistant launched on the Pixel phone, it was more than a Siri or Alexa imitator. It was a thoughtful reimagining of how we interact with our phones, and there’s still no better AI platform.

That’s a large part of the reason why die-hard Android users love the Pixel so much. It’s not just about getting a near-stock version of Android—any Android One phone will deliver that. The promise of the Pixel is marrying the best of Android with the most advanced hardware in an iPhone-like package.

But the Pixel has consistently fallen short. Its smooth, frictionless experience covers a multitude of design and engineering sins. The questions remains: Why should the Pixel experience be saddled with poor hardware?

Pixel not-so perfect

Way back in 2009 when it was retooling its mobile operating system to compete with the iPhone, Google could have kept Android for itself. But it saw the potential for greatness. While a single handset might be able to compete with the iPhone, an open-source project would give Android the kind of dominance and reach that Apple could never match.

pixel 3 xl screen Christopher Hebert/IDG

The Pixel is a great platform but not a great phone.

It worked. Android has grown to control some 90 percent of the smartphone market share, with a dizzying array of handsets at all price points. The problem, however, is quality. Google can build better and better versions of Android, but by putting it freely out there for anyone to use, there’s no way to control the stack. For every thousand-dollar Note 10+, there are a few dozen budget phones running Nougat or Oreo with slow processors, terrible cameras, and second-rate security.

The Pixel phone was supposed to change that. While Google’s Nexus project was little more than a “pure” Android phone for enthusiasts, the Pixel was meant to be the iPhone of Android, a handset designed from the ground up by Google to showcase not just the latest version of Android, but also the best of Google’s innovation. Google Assistant, Google Lens, dynamic icons, and Motion Sense, all debuted on the Pixel, not to mention a slew of camera capabilities that competitors are still trying to match. And of course, three years of steady updates.

But instead of a perfect Android phone, the Pixel is a compromise. Yes, it brings the very best of Google and the latest version of Android, but instead of pristine iPhone-quality hardware, the Pixel is more Moto than Galaxy. But that needn’t be the case. Like Android itself, the Pixel works best in the abstract, and it might be time for Google to leave the reality of it up to its partners.

Redefining premium

While we think of Android as one all-encompassing dish, there are actually three very different flavors to choose from. At the low end, there’s Android Go, which optimizes Android for slower processors and little RAM; the near-stock Android One for mostly mid-range phones; and regular old Android Open Source Project for everyone else.

pixel 4 xl camera Michael Simon/IDG

The bset part of the Pixel’s camera happens behind the scenes.

That kind off leaves premium Android phone makers out in the cold. They can either deliver a “pure” Android handset and hope people choose their phone on the strength of their hardware, or develop their own skin to give their phone value and set it apart from the crowd.

But what if there were a “premium” Android program in the Pixel? What if the next Pixel phone was made by LG or OnePlus or Oppo, with an end-to-end software and OS experience built by Google? It would literally be the best of both worlds, and hardware makers would jump at the opportunity for Pixel branding. It would also take the pressure off Google to deliver an actual phone, and turn the Pixel brand into one associated with function rather than form. The Pixel name is strong enough to stand on its own anyway, and a "Powered by Pixel" phone with high-end specs would instantly be as intriguing as a Google phone.

The Pixels' strengths have nothing to do with hardware anyway. Google’s best products are the ones that fade into the background and work with little direct interaction, but a phone is very much a hands-on device. As I wrote in my review, the Pixel 4 XL is a half-baked device that is more about what it can be than what it actually is. Even with low sales, the Pixel has had a tremendous impact on the Android landscape because Google truly gets what a phone should be. It just doesn’t have the hardware vision or prowess to deliver the whole package.

Perhaps it’s time to hand over the Pixel brand to someone who does.

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