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Google actually tried with the Pixel series and it's working
Google has been one of the perennial underachievers in the smartphone space for several years now. In fact, the firm had either acknowledged that its recent devices have delivered lower year-on-year sales or ignored sales altogether during earnings calls.
This changed in its Q4 2021 earnings call (h/t: Seeking Alpha) earlier this week, when Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai revealed some welcome news:
In Q4, we set an all-time quarterly sales record for Pixel. This came in spite of an extremely challenging supply chain environment. […] The response to Pixel 6 from our customers and carrier partners was incredibly positive.
There are a number of unanswered questions we have about Pichai’s comments, such as which specific phones are responsible for the record sales and how many devices the company actually sold during this time frame. We’ve asked Google for clarification and will update the article accordingly, but record Pixel sales are nevertheless a cause for celebration within Google.
Why is this a big deal?
The Pixel 6 series launched in roughly the same number of locales as the Pixel 5 and 4 (eight markets), albeit not quite reaching the heights of the Pixel 3’s 14 markets. But India was a major omission yet again, with the Pixel 3 being the last phone to hit the subcontinent. Furthermore, Google actually saw issues related to Pixel 6 demand and fulfillment straight out of the gate. Meanwhile, the Pixel 5a’s availability was far more limited, only landing in Japan and the US compared to the Pixel 4a’s eight countries.
So even if the company only managed to sell a fraction more Pixels than its previous quarterly record, it’s still positive news given these logistical challenges and the curtailed availability. Google’s record sales also seem to show us what happens when the company bothers to put in more than just a token effort.
Google's new-found aggressive approach appears to be doing the trick, despite its phones seeing limited availability.
The company’s phones have almost always been accompanied by asterisks. They were slated for being too expensive (Pixel 3), too buggy (pretty much all of them), and/or failing in the specs department (e.g. Pixel 5’s mid-range chip, Pixel 4’s tiny battery, and both lacking a triple rear camera).
But the Pixel 6 series feels like the first time in ages where Google has nailed two out of these three factors, delivering competitive pricing and impressive specs — including a custom chipset for the first time and an upgraded main camera. It still hasn’t nailed the software experience yet, but we’ll get to that.
Google has generally done a good job in the mid-range space, but even the Pixel 5a showed the company exerting more effort than before. It effectively took the Pixel 4a 5G, cut the price by $50, and added water resistance, flexible dual rear cameras, and a big battery.
Now’s not the time for Google to relax
The smartphone game is a marathon and not a sprint, though, and it’s clear Google still has plenty of miles to go before the Pixel 6 series gains long-term success.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle is software polish, as Pixel 6 owners have complained about a litany of bugs for months now. This seemed to reach its apex with the paused December 2021 update, which was supposed to fix a number of early issues but introduced dropped calls instead. Google couldn’t remedy the situation before mid-January because it chose to combine the December update with the January 2022 update and took its sweet time delivering that.
Another major challenge for Google to address is the Pixel’s tiny geographical footprint. This pales in comparison to the likes of Apple and Samsung, which are available in practically every corner of the globe. Meanwhile, the most recent Pixels are missing in many Asian countries (including India), the Middle East, most European countries, Latin America, and all of Africa.
More reading: All the Google Pixel phones released so far
This reduced footprint means Google’s hardware sales and market share are at an immediate disadvantage versus major players like Apple, Samsung, and Xiaomi. But even when looking at its ‘stronghold’ of the US, it’s clear Google has some work to do. A Q4 2021 Counterpoint Research report found that the Mountain View giant occupied the sixth place in the US, with a measly 1% share compared to Apple’s 57% and Samsung’s 24%.
So between the company’s small footprint and tiny market share to begin with, Google’s latest sales will clearly pale in comparison to even a terrible quarter from Samsung or Apple. It’s also unclear to what extent Google benefited from LG’s mobile demise, although Counterpoint previously stated that Motorola and Samsung were the biggest beneficiaries.
Nevertheless, Google’s “record” quarter suggests that the company is finally on the right track with its Pixel business. Now, about fixing those bugs and landing in more markets.