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Google announced a slew of shiny new products this week, including new Pixel smartphones. Unfortunately, a spectre of low sales hovered over all the new stuff. Compared to the iPhone, which has sold tens of millions of units, Google’s Pixel phone has dwindled in popularity with the everyday buyer. Sure, the Pixel 2 camera is incredibly impressive, but overall, consumers don’t seem care.
This remains true even after this week’s big event. Google can launch all the new products it wants, but until it finds a way to truly inspire the average Joe, its ambitions as a consumer hardware company will likely go unfulfilled. The new mediocre Pixel phone line certainly won’t do the trick on its own. But there may be a silver lining for Google.
Google’s hardware projects are remarkably similar in purpose to Microsoft’s Surface line. Both are attempts to showcase the very best of their respective ecosystems. For Google, this is machine learning. The new Pixel 3 phones have a number of features that rely on Google’s AI, including a more advanced camera, a way to filter spam calls, and its controversial Duplex feature, which automates calls to make appointments. Similarly, the new Google Home Hub calls on the company’s smart home expertise to provide a control center for smart doorbells or thermostats, while also functioning like an alarm clock, or family hub for questions, reminders, and news and weather.
But so far, Microsoft’s ecosystem is still more impressive. The Surface Pro line is the standard for Windows hybrids and has sold comparatively well, and high-end halo products like the flashy Surface Studio all-in-one have done a lot to improve Microsoft’s reputation, despite low sales.
Meanwhile, the Pixel line of phones seems to have done neither. Sales in 2017 didn’t even reach 4 million units. In reviews, customers found the devices were fine — but not great. Last month, after Apple’s new iPhone was revealed, The Verge said that while the phone was a solid update, the camera still didn’t match the Google Pixel 2. On Twitter, a popular tech commentator known as Kontra found this infuriating, not because it was technically untrue, but because he felt the wild difference in sales between the iPhone and the Pixel made the comparison nonsensical.
The new Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL don’t seem like they’ll do much to change that sentiment, particularly because their design remains uninspiring. Rather than stoking consumer lust, the plain, almost nerdy feel of the Pixel phones seems aimed mostly at choosy techies looking for a pure Android experience rather than the public at large. It’s true, trying to establish a new foothold in the now-mature smartphone market is difficult. But Google isn’t doing itself any favors by focusing on a few gimmicks rather than producing a desirable product overall.
The one bright spot in Google’s hardware lineup has been its Home smart speaker products. Despite the market once being utterly dominated by Amazon’s Alexa devices, Google’s advantages in search and artificial intelligence have allowed to it gain significant market share. In some ways, these Google products are just better than the others.
If Google truly wants to establish itself as a consumer hardware company, it needs to make all of its products better than the others. Right now, it’s hard to see why most mainstream consumers would choose a Pixel phone over a Samsung Galaxy or iPhone. Part of that is marketing, which has thus far lacked, but mostly it comes down to an elusive mix of design, features, and performance that define the very best products.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. The good news is that the new Pixel Slate seems very promising. It’s a hybrid device, like the iPad Pro or Surface line. The tablet runs ChromeOW and Chromebooks. It has a detachable keyboard with an adjustable angle, and it can adapt between its laptop-like or tablet modes. It is very thin, can be specced to be powerful, and showcases some genuinely useful innovations. In other words, the Pixel Slate is what the Pixel phones are not: slick, different from the competition, and genuinely new. It also seems well thought out: Using ChromeOS rather than Android signals a genuine attempt by Google to take on Windows and iOS.
The Slate was one bright spot for Google in an otherwise unremarkable rollout of new devices. If the company can keep its sights focused on the future of computing, perhaps it can finally become a hardware company and provide some genuinely interesting, drool-worthy products.