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Google CEO Sundar Pichai says 'hardware is hard' in interview about Pixels

Pichai essentially admits that Google has a tough time with hardware, but he's optimistic for the future.

Published onMay 19, 2020

Google Pixelbook Go Review artistic pixel 4

Last week, we got a rare behind-the-scenes look at what’s going on with the Google Pixel hardware team. Unfortunately, the news was mostly bad, with internal complaints about the Google Pixel 4 design, poor sales of that device, and the exiting of two major players on the Pixel team.

This morning, The Verge published an audio interview conducted with Google’s (and Alphabet’s) CEO Sundar Pichai. During the interview, Pichai discusses the Google Pixel hardware philosophies, the difficulties the company faces, and what the future holds for the Pixel division. He sums it up best when he says very matter-of-factly, “hardware is hard.”

Google Pixel hardware: ‘Hardware is hard.”

In a summary article of the full interview for The Vergecast, it’s made pretty clear that this interview with Pichai was likely scheduled well before news broke about problems with the Google Pixel hardware team. As such, both Pichai and The Verge probably needed to figure out how to address the fresh news on the fly.

Related: The only reason the Pixel line isn’t Android’s crown jewel is Google

With that in mind, Pichai doesn’t have much revelatory info to give on the situation. He does openly discuss the fact that Google has troubles with creating hardware and gives a synopsis of the company’s three-tier approach to hardware design. Unfortunately, though, he doesn’t go much deeper than that and doesn’t directly discuss the news of the Pixel 4’s apparent lack-of-success, the company’s own misgivings about the product, nor the departures of Google Pixel hardware team magnates Mario Queiroz and Marc Levoy.

Here’s a quote from Pichai about Google Pixel hardware:

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.

While Pichai saying that there have been difficulties in integrating Google-branded hardware efforts with the Nest team is both true and valid, it doesn’t really paint a rosy picture of Google. When we talk about Google, we talk about one of the richest, most successful companies of all time, with huge power over both the tech industry and all our general lives. To think that a company of that magnitude can’t quickly and seamlessly blend two of its divisions is kind of strange.

The three tiers of Google hardware

google pixel 4 xl oh so orange camera module

Moving on, Pichai discusses the three integral factors of successful hardware — including Google Pixel hardware — as far as he sees it. The full quote is below but see afterward for our bullet-list synopsis of what he’s saying:

One is to drive computing forward. The second is we really guide our ecosystem. Pretty much everything we’ve done well, you can go all the way back and Android’s early days, Samsung Galaxy Nexus, which we worked together, was a pivotal phone. Nexus 7 in the tablet world. I can point to Chromebooks — all along, we did our original hardware to kind of bootstrap it. And I look at areas maybe where we haven’t done opinionated [work] — maybe [smart]watch is a good example where we haven’t. And then you can see it’s tough to guide an ecosystem to what your vision of it is, just building the underlying platform.
So I think that’s the second reason. And third is to really build a sustainable hardware business. I think all of it is important, and that’s how I think about it. And I’m excited. Rick [Osterloh] and team, working closely with Hiroshi [Lockheimer] and team, they have that long-term view. So we’re pretty committed to it.

In other words, these are the three things Pichai thinks are integral when it comes to Google Pixel hardware:

  • Driving computing forward: This is pretty self-explanatory. Basically, Pichai thinks that hardware’s purpose is to make computing ascend to a new level. It’s important to note this, though, as he’s essentially saying a smartphone isn’t an end unto itself, but simply a means to create advancements in computing, which is a major aspect of Google Pixel hardware.
  • Guiding the Google ecosystem: This is a major aspect of all Google hardware. Google doesn’t just make laptops, for example. It makes Chromebooks that push all things Google so that trying to use the product without Google integration would be exceptionally difficult. Apple does the same thing.
  • Sustainability: Pichai has been very outspoken about sustainability and his efforts run through nearly everything Google does, so this isn’t too surprising. It is interesting, though, that this is such a core tenet of the Google Pixel hardware team that it would be on this list.

Probably the most interesting thing in the quote above, though, is Pichai admitting that Google hasn’t been doing such a good job in the smartwatch space. That’s hardly news to anyone who even passively follows the wearable industry, but interesting to hear from the company CEO.

Where does Google Pixel hardware go from here?

As I stated earlier, nothing Pichai says during the interview directly responds to the news of turmoil inside the Google Pixel hardware team. However, his statements do give us a bit of a clearer idea of how the company approaches hardware as a whole and that could help explain why Pixel phones look and function the ways in which they do.

Related: The Google Pixel 4a: Everything we know so far

The next big piece of Google hardware is the upcoming Google Pixel 4a, which should land at the beginning of June. It will be very interesting to see how that phone (expected to cost just $349) fares in the market, especially in comparison to the much more expensive Google Pixel 4 line.

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