Google’s hardware division has been getting beat up in the press recently. A report of internal strife over the Google Pixel 4 made the group look pretty bad, with hardware lead Rick Osterloh reportedly internally criticizing the Pixel 4 just before launch and two key executives leaving the division in the past year.
With all of these shutdowns, it would not be totally crazy to worry about the future of the Pixel line. The Pixel 3 sold less than the Pixel 2. The Pixel 4 is selling less than the Pixel 3. The cheaper Pixel 3a and 4a were supposed to save Google’s smartphone line, but now the “a” series faces very tough competition from Apple’s new iPhone SE. For the Pixel 5, all indications are that Google is bowing out of the top-end of the market. Things are not going well.
Speaking to The Verge, Pichai says he’s taking a longer-term view of Google’s hardware efforts. When asked if the Pixel line is doing as well as Google has hoped, Pichai responded:
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. And so we are definitely investing in it, but that timeline. I think we’ve made a lot of progress.
A lack of “progress” is something we criticized the Pixel line for in our last review. Google started its own hardware line with the Pixel 1, but it’s hard to point to a major process improvement Google has made in the last four years. A key problem is still a total lack of progress when it comes to sales, and that starts with availability. The Pixel 1 started Google hardware sales in only a tiny handful of countries, but four years later, the Pixel line is only for sale in 12 countries. Last time I checked, Apple sells the iPhone in about 70 countries, while Samsung sells its flagship in over 100 countries. Even if the next Pixel was a smash hit, most people would be unlikely to buy one.
All these side-project chips could be leading to something bigger, though. A recent report claimed Google was planning to develop a system SoC for a future Pixel phone that would replace the usual Qualcomm Snapdragon processor that monopolizes the high-end market. The company has been hiring chip designers from Intel and Qualcomm for some time now, and the report says the SoC could be ready as early as 2021, which could mean a Pixel 6 with a Google SoC.
Pichai hinted he wasn’t giving the hardware team a blank check, though, saying it’s “important” to have “a clear financial sustainability goal” in hardware.