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​​The evolution of Google Pixel: Where will the goodness of Android take us next?

A look at how the ‘Google phone’ story started and why the Google Pixel 7 series could be the start of a beautiful new relationship

The Google Pixel 7 phone is displayed at its launch in New York on October 6, 2022. Once a minor player in the smartphone business, Google confirmed its new ambition to penetrate the highly competitive market. (AFP)

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The ‘Google phone’ story started much before the Pixel series – from the first-ever Android phone, the HTC Dream a.k.a. the T-Mobile G1, introduced in 2008 to the bouquet of Nexus devices that Google produced in partnership with leading smartphone manufacturers of the time, including HTC, Motorola, ASUS, Samsung, LG, and Huawei.

The Nexus devices were designed to showcase marquee features of every Android iteration and while they were quite popular among Android enthusiasts, it was a mixed bag overall. Also, since the line changed manufacturers year after year, there was never any consistency in the portfolio in terms of the design language or the overall experience.

(Interestingly, for a brief time from 2012 to 2014, Google actually owned one of the leading smartphone manufacturers, Motorola. But the deal was made to work out patent issues and not for abetting the company’s smartphone efforts. Google eventually sold Motorola to Lenovo in 2014.)

The Pixel journey

In 2016, on the brink of a new Nexus smartphone, Google tried to take matters into their own hands (the phone was built by HTC though) to showcase the goodness of Android, Google’s AI and machine learning chops, and the magic of computational photography. The Google Pixel was announced.

The first-generation Pixel was the first smartphone with built-in Google Assistant (previously, the phones only had Google Voice Search) and a push towards computational photography.

When the time came for second-generation Pixel devices, the Pixel 2 series, Google hired around 2000 engineers from HTC to build its own engineering capability. HTC was on a downward spiral, and while this wasn’t an acquisition of HTC’s smartphone division, Google managed to save HTC from going down while acqui-hiring almost all of its hardware staff.

By Pixel 3 and Pixel 3XL in 2018, Google started pitching its AI-based services and Pixel feature drops as the USP of owning a ‘Google phone’. The much appreciated ‘Night Sight’ for night photography too debuted with this iteration. However, by then, the Pixel series was also showing signs of falling behind. It packed in modest hardware compared to the competition, skimped on some features which were table stakes in the market, and other smartphone players were catching up on the Pixel’s camera prowess.

Yet, Google kept its marketing going and the devices, despite mishits, were generally well received (they didn’t make any huge dent with their market share though).

With the Pixel 4 in 2019, Google wanted to rejig things a little. The camera module was redesigned, and motion gestures made their debut. The radar-based system meant the phone could launch in only a few countries. The motion gestures didn’t move the needle, the limited launch didn’t help, and despite the launch of astrophotography mode with this generation, the Pixel 4 failed at the box office.

The Pixel 5 and Pixel 6 suffered on two counts – Google being unsure of where to go next with the Pixel series and the supply chain constraints, challenging work environment in Mountain View, and difficult economic conditions due to the pandemic.

Uncertainty was the theme of the 2020s and it reflected in Google’s Pixel line-up. Google put out no-fuss, mid-range smartphones with no gimmicks. Was this a soft reset of strategy or a response to the times we were in? We didn’t know. This was also the time Google announced Android 12 with Material UI, its biggest design overhaul in almost a decade.

The India story

Closer home too, the last couple of years have been a no show by Google. Till the third-generation, Google India went all-in with its marketing efforts for the Pixel and it seemed that despite modest sales, the idea was to establish the Pixel brand for the long-term. There were a plethora of other devices too, including the Nest smart speakers and hubs as well as Chromecast.

The Pixel 4 never launched in India because of the restrictions around the radar system it packed, and the next two years of the pandemic meant not one flagship device from Google reaching India’s shores. Google instead focused on its affordable line-up of the Pixel 3A (2019), Pixel 4A (2020), and more recently, the Pixel 6A (2022) in India. Many thought it was a reset of the company’s smartphone strategy in India (“Google’s not interested in the Indian market!”), but it was more because of Google’s inner demons and the external reasons driven by the pandemic. That’s pretty much why other smart home devices too didn’t launch in India in the period. With the mid-range ‘a’ series, Google had moderate success in the market piggybacking on the pure Android experience and the reputation of the Pixel camera.

And then there are concerns around the after-sales support, which is admittedly worse than what the budget smartphone brands in India offer. There’s only 24×7 online customer support and if you live in a tier one city, a free pick-up and drop service for faulty devices. If not, you have to ship your device to Google’s service centre in Mumbai. The pick-up-and-drop service and the overall service experience has been pretty seamless for me, living in Delhi-NCR. But not everyone wants to part with their device for a week and Pixel customers don’t just stay in the metros. I hope Google improves upon this if it’s in the market for a long run.

Interestingly, after much hue and cry over the Pixel 6a pricing (atrocious, yet I bought one!), Google has sort of corrected course with the Pixel 7 & 7 Pro – available for 59,999 and 84,999 respectively.

There have also been reports that Google is considering assembling Pixel phones in India having solicited bids from manufacturers to assemble between 500,000 and a million units. This is part of the industry trend of moving a portion of manufacturing away from China, but a bid request is only an expression of interest, and does not indicate any definite plans. That said, moving some fraction of assembly to India would imply better pricing and easier availability of spares going forward.

An ode to the Pixel 7 Pro

All that said, let’s come to the thingamajig of the moment, the Pixel 7 Pro, Google’s latest flagship phone (and its younger sibling, the Pixel 7).

Most previous Pixel smartphones had some showstopper flaw. The Pixel 1 lacked water resistance, the Pixel 2 had display issues, the Pixel 3 had iffy memory management, and there was the motion sense issue with Pixel 4. The Pixel 6 Pro was almost close to a compromise-free flagship experience. Only just there.

After six years and several upheavals, the Pixel 7 Pro is the best showcase of everything one expects in a ‘Google phone’… the raison d'être of Pixels.

There’s the just needed upgrade to the camera setup, the design refinements are delish, and the Pixel exclusives are a nice topping on the pie. It’s the most complete vision of what a Pixel can be. It might not boast of the top specifications sheet and it doesn’t fold or flip, but it showcases the best of Android and Google’s vision of software and services. It’s about what the device can do for you. Or what you can do with it.

Of course, it won’t make Apple or Samsung sweat. Absolutely not. But in India, Google might be able to capitalize on the losing mindshare of OnePlus and rattle the Chinese brands like Vivo and Xiaomi which have been trying to capture a foothold in the premium smartphone market.

The Pixel 7 & 7 Pro could be the start of a beautiful new relationship. Between Pixel and I, the customer. Between Google and India perhaps. But it’s not about where we are. But where Google takes Pixel forward from here on. My fingers are crossed in hope.

Abhishek Baxi is a technology journalist and digital consultant. The views expressed are the author's own.

Also read: Why the Google Pixel 7 and 7 Pro are among 2022’s best smartphones

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