You only get so many Hail Mary passes in consumer electronics. Even among the biggest companies. Take a look a Microsoft’s long-standing mobile phone ambitions. Even a $7.2 billion acquisition of the once-dominant Nokia couldn’t buy the company a place at the table with Apple and Samsung.
Some earlier false starts aside, Google’s mobile hardware ambitions have been — on the whole — more successful. But the Pixel line has never had the major hit the company needs to justify the resources spent on the category. The devices have largely felt like, at best, a showcase for some of the cool stuff Google is working on in mobile software and ML and, at worst, a kind of also-ran.
It’s frankly been strange to see the company struggle to make waves, though entering a field as crowded as smartphones was never going to be easy. And it’s doubly difficult to make a dent when, on the whole, flagship smartphones are all pretty good and continued dominance in the space is largely the result of forward momentum. Adding to Google’s troubles is a long-standing insistence that the true breakthroughs are all happening on the software side.
It’s an interesting thesis, to be sure, that Apple, Samsung and the like are essentially wasting their time waging a war of specs. There’s something to the idea, but in its current state, at least, it’s simply not possible to be hardware agnostic. Artificial intelligence and machine learning are, undoubtedly, growing in importance, but camera lenses, displays and processors all still matter. At least for now.
Last May, it was revealed that key members of the Pixel team had left the company. It was part of a big rethink, one reaching back even further. This August, CEO Sundar Pichai noted that the company has been working on its own in-house silicon for four years. As far as Hail Mary passes go, weaning yourself off chipmakers like Qualcomm is a big one. And it needs a big phone to go with it.
Released this time last year, the Pixel 5 was the last vestige of the old way. Big changes don’t happen overnight — or even in a year when it comes to major electronics product lines. Unfortunately for Google, news of its minor restructuring got out ahead of the phone’s release, and even the company had to acknowledge that better days were ahead. The Pixel 6 isn’t make or break for the line, but after generations of uninspiring sales, it needs to prove that things are heading in the right direction.