Give it up, Google. Nix the Pixel and get yourself an Android One partner

Yes, it means writing down the company's $1.1B acquisition of HTC's hardware engineering division as a complete failure. But Google has a better mobile way forward.

Google’s Pixel division: Big waste of money or smart investment?
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Last week, news emerged -- originally at The Information -- that two of the primary engineers working within Google's Pixel division --- Marc Levoy and Mario Quieroz -- departed the company earlier this year. Ostensibly this was due to internal political fallout related to the poor sales performance of the Pixel 4, which has been an unmitigated disaster for the Silicon Valley-based firm. 

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Recent market data from research firm IDC indicates that in the six months between Q4 of 2019 and Q1 2020, only about 2 million Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL devices were shipped after nearly six months of sales. 

This performance is comparatively worse than the previous models, the Pixel 3/Pixel 3 XL and Pixel 3A/Pixel 3A XL, which sold over six and a half million units combined in the first two quarters of 2019. The total smartphone market share of the Pixel line is estimated to be significantly less than 3% of all smartphone devices in use in the United States, depending on which market research firm's data you use. 

The Pixel 4, despite several issues that compelled me to return it, was not a terrible phone, per se. But it wasn't an exceptional phone, and value-wise, it fared poorly against its competitors in similar price points -- particularly against the Samsung S10, which launched in a similar time frame and is still one of the best values in Android phones today.

The Pixel 4 was the last Qualcomm Snapdragon 855-based phone to be launched in 2019, which also hurt it, as it was using technology that would soon be replaced with the Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 in the following year's models from Samsung and other vendors.

If the Pixel devices are doing so badly in the marketplace, then we have to ask: Why should Google continue to produce them?

The "value" oriented Pixel 4A -- not yet released --  is expected to arrive as early as the end of this month. I think the company needs to strongly reevaluate whether or not it makes sense to bring this product to market during a time of such major economic chaos and in which overall consumer purchasing power is virtually nonexistent.. 

Based on the specifications leaked to date, we're talking about a potentially $400 device using a lower-end Qualcomm Snapdragon 730 chipset, 6GB RAM, 64GB storage, a 5.81" OLED display, a single rear 12.2MP camera, a front-facing 8MP camera, and a 3000mAh battery. 

These are very low-end specs when you consider the competition, which includes the $399 iPhone SE (and its powerful A13 chip that is unrivaled in its capabilities) and Samsung's A50, which is currently selling for under $300 unlocked and has a similar hardware bill of materials expected in Pixel 4A. With Pixel 5 in the thick of its design and production planning, this is not a good position for Google to be in. 

In the best of possible economic conditions, the Pixel's market performance should give Google extreme pause. To put this in its proper perspective, Microsoft put Windows Mobile 10 to sleep in 2017 when the product had an over 3% market share, in fact as much as a 5% market share worldwide -- with as high as 10% share in certain countries. The Pixel, however, isn't even doing that well. 

The Pixel exists for one reason: To serve as a pure Android developer device, a reference product. But Google doesn't need to produce a device to accomplish this. There's no reason why it cannot use its Android One platform for developer purposes -- and it should work with a select partner. It should work with Samsung.

Previously, Google attempted to do this with its Nexus products. The Galaxy Nexus, produced with Samsung, aimed to provide a purist Nexus experience. But it was not the same product with the same purist features on all carriers that supported it. This was primarily because a completely different device had to be produced for CDMA networks, such as Verizon's, which I was unfortunate enough to have been a customer of at the time. It was probably one of the worst phones I've ever owned, as it had to be replaced three times due to a buggy hardware implementation.

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Fortunately, it is now possible to create chipsets that will work across all carrier 4G LTE networks -- so a new Galaxy Nexus, produced by Samsung under a single SKU, would now be possible.

What kind of product are we talking about exactly? No complicated hardware engineering should go into this device. Just as Apple recycled the iPhone 8's basic design for the iPhone SE, and simply swapped out a processor part, the new Galaxy Nexus should be based on Samsung's S10 and A50. A Galaxy Nexus S10 and A50, to be precise.

To keep costs down, I would even look to use Samsung's own Exynos 98xx series processors, and they should base the phone on the existing international versions of their Galaxy devices so that the product can be as vertically integrated as possible. 

I would also commit to a three-year software update schedule, and produce them on demand using Samsung's existing production lines. Do nothing different to these phones other than load them with the Android One stack, and perhaps issue the casing in a limited edition color to differentiate it. That's it.

This would not only satisfy the needs of Android developers looking for a stable software development and testing platform, but also the small number of purists seeking an unadulterated Google experience on a smartphone device. There's just no way Google can compete at scale in terms of a bill of materials value and component supply chain with Samsung, or a comparable Chinese manufacturer like OnePlus (Oppo), Lenovo (Motorola) or Huawei. 

Yes, it means writing down Google's $1.1B acquisition of HTC's hardware engineering division as a complete failure -- which, as I have said in the past, is just another on their long list of companies it has turned into garbage. Google needs to accept this now and move on. 

Let's be frank: Aside from Apple, Samsung is the only device manufacturer with the kind of market clout that can push a phone onto carriers. Google itself cannot do this. Samsung will be in the driver's seat in any negotiation of this type and will likely ask for a high price to do this, and other favorable clauses. Samsung is also doing various business deals with Microsoft, which would have to be reconciled as well. But it's the only logical partner, long term, that Google has as a viable option.

Is it time for Google to throw in the towel on Pixel and do something much more practical with Android One? Talk Back and Let Me Know.