Google’s Pixel family of devices are generally regarded as solid phones, especially if you care about being on the latest and greatest version of Android. Despite this, the devices have never sold particularly well. Google, however, isn’t giving up on building its own version of an iPhone (or Samsung Galaxy) killer, and plans significant launches for later this year.
The word from Bloomberg is that the upcoming pair of devices (Pixel 3 and 3 XL, presumably), will both launch this year, but with rather different features. The Pixel 3 XL will feature both an edge-to-edge screen and a notch similar to the one on the iPhone X. On the iPhone X, the notch is used for the additional camera hardware that makes Apple’s 3D cameras and depth-sensing features work. It’s not clear how the Pixel 3 XL will use the notch as of this writing, though smart money is on similar capabilities or features.
The Pixel 3 XL will also include a thicker bezel at the bottom, known as the “chin,” and its notch is said to be taller than the one on the iPhone X but also less wide. Personally, I’d rather have a regular rectangular surface and a slightly thicker bezel than a useless notch carved out of various applications, but the market has clearly spoken on that front. The “chin,” meanwhile, is reserved for future stereo speakers, which Google wants to retain. Android P is explicitly designed to allow developers to build content around notches, so the focus appears to be on using software to avoid the design issue rather than building rectangular hardware.
Google is reportedly in talks with Foxconn as a possible manufacturer of the Pixel 3 and 3 XL, with the design handled by the elements of HTC that it bought in a deal back in January. Overall, despite generally strong reviews, sales of the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL have not been good. Back in January, IDC claimed that the entire Pixel family had only generated 3.9 million sales in 2017, compared with 1.5 billion devices in the entire market.
#GooglePixel shipments continue to grow, but they still represent a tiny portion of the smartphone market pic.twitter.com/W6FVZlYOlC
— Francisco Jeronimo (@fjeronimo) February 12, 2018
That 3.9 million represented a doubling of market share compared with 2016, but still speaks to the difficulty of launching into the crowded smartphone market, where Samsung largely dominates the US Android space. Reports from earlier this week suggest that Essential has canceled its second phone and may put itself up for sale, and the handful of major players have often turned to custom-built silicon to differentiate their own products. Samsung uses a mixture of its own custom-built chips and Qualcomm hardware and Apple also builds its own silicon.
Google doesn’t have that advantage. And while the company has done a great deal of work in AI on its custom TPUs, we haven’t seen any hint of a custom hardware chip intended for embedded work. In fact, Google’s TPU efforts have typically consumed more power and generated more heat, not less, though this could be part of a program to offload any necessary compute capability to remote data centers. Then again, a lot of mud is being thrown at the wall of edge computing, with various companies experimenting with AI accelerators that prioritize low-power acceleration, with cloud upload for more difficult workloads. How all this shakes out and where the compute work actually gets done is still in flux, subject to varying latency requirements and bandwidth and power restrictions.
Absent a major misstep from Apple or Samsung, the best-case for Google’s phone business is a steady ramp up over the next few years. The company has already established itself as the go-to firm for those who want to stay on the cutting edge of Android development. Whether it can make the leap to the wider market is still unclear.