Google on Thursday unveiled its Pixel 7 and Pixel 7 Pro, smartphones that advance digital photography and incorporate handy new AI features. What Google needs along with a better product, though, is a better way to sell it.
The Pixel phones’ zoom abilities take a step toward the versatility of traditional cameras. Guided Frame gives voice prompts so that blind people can take selfies. You can use your voice to pick emojis. But all those features, which Google showcased at its Made by Google event in Brooklyn, are academic if the Pixel phones continue to barely even rate as a niche product.
Pixel phones have only a little over 2% of smartphone market share in the US, according to analytics firm StatCounter. Samsung, the top phone maker using Google’s Android mobile software, has almost 30% share in the US. Apple now holds a majority share in the US, the first time that’s happened since 2010.
A stronger Pixel presence could infuse Google innovations like computational photography, phone call screening and responsive voice dictation into more third-party Android devices. Google is forced to play a balancing act with its original equipment manufacturing, or OEM, partners, slowly nudging players like Samsung without getting too competitive. But given its niche status, Google needs to do a better job of getting people to buy its phones. Google can tap into stronger marketing, carrier partnerships and taking advantage of its dominance in home tech. Doing so will give consumers more than just the default two choices of iPhones and Galaxy S handsets.
“Google is trying to play this balancing act where they need to make the Pixel good, but I’m concerned if they’re not trying to go gangbusters and build the best flagship devices,” said Anshel Sag, an analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy.
It could mean Google is deliberately holding back, influencing but not threatening Android phone partners like Samsung, Motorola and OnePlus.
But the less successful Pixel phones are, the harder time Google will have recruiting good engineers and, ultimately, continuing the effort at all. Here are some changes Google could make so Pixels won’t remain a rarity.
Google didn’t immediately reply to request for comment.
The right kinds of marketing moves could mean Pixel phones make a splash.
Former T-Mobile Chief Executive John Legere once let people borrow an iPhone 5S for a week so that they could try it on the T-Mobile network. By lending out iPhones, possible customers painlessly overcame fears about whether the company’s network actually worked at their homes. Google could benefit from that kind of maverick mentality.
Google has deep pockets for ads, soccer jerseys, billboards and race car sponsorships to show off its products. But it can be hard to convince consumers that new features are must-haves, not just nice-to-haves.
“We’ve reached a point in the maturity cycle where these devices do more than most people want or need. Therefore, any device is good enough,” said Gartner analyst Tuong Nguyen. Most cool features ultimately are merely “icing on the cake” that only appeals to the limited market of early adopters and other tech-savvy buyers, he said.
Google getting Pixels directly into peoples’ hands could help. Popup stores or booths at music festivals, for instance, could let potential customers see how well that Pixel 7 Pro camera really does zoom or appreciate just how fast their words appear on the screen while dictating a text.
Carriers are still a primary way consumers buy their new phones. Walking into a store, people can talk to phone experts and find the devices that suit their needs. As for salespeople, they ultimately want the easiest sale. If a customer comes in and is veering toward an iPhone, it’s best to push them in that direction and move on to the next customer. For store associates to consider pulling people toward Pixel, they’ll need training and incentives.
Even then, this would be a multiyear effort by Google and the company might face blowback from its OEM partners that also push millions of units inside T-Mobile, AT&T and Verizon stores.
“I feel like a multiyear effort looks very serious, and might be another point for OEMs to balk at Google for being too serious with Pixel and too competitive with them,” Sag said.
Trojan-horse Pixel with home tech
Google can take advantage of its relative strength in smart home technology to plug Pixel, too.
Google has competitive Nest doorbells, routers and smart speakers, products anchored by the strong Google Assistant technology. Amazon’s Ring and Echo products are strong, too, but Apple is relatively weak, and that opens the door for Google.
“There’s no contest that Google Assistant is by far and away a better product than Apple Siri,” Sag said.
With that foothold, Google could win consumers over to Pixel. Someone who already owns a Nest doorbell or thermostat could get a major price cut on a Pixel product. This could mean receiving a Pixel Tablet and magnetic charging dock at a discounted rate when bundling it with a Nest security suite.
Gartner’s Nguyen, however, is skeptical Google will go so far as to do hardware bundles to push additional Pixel products.
Not everything has lasted so long at Google, as the recent cancellation of the Stadia cloud gaming service and the chronicles of the Killed By Google website show.
Year after year of steady improvement, though, can bring results. Google promises five years of security updates for the Pixel 7, a sign of long-term thinking. Google ordered 8 million Pixel 7 phones and hopes to double sales to 8 million for 2023, according to Nikkei Asia. The off-season phones, like this year’s Pixel 6A, offer excellent value.
A percentage point of market share here, a percentage point there — perhaps one of these years it will all add up to something meaningful.
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