Google's Pixel 'sales numbers' don't tell the whole story

Focusing on (purported) sales figures for Google's first fully holistic phone is missing the forest for the trees.

Google Pixel Sales

People love numbers.

I get it: There's something satisfying about being able to quantify a concept -- to define it in numerical terms that tell us unequivocally what it's all about.

The problem is that in many cases, numbers don't actually tell the whole story. Sometimes, in fact, they can even cloud what's really important.

We see this sort of thing happen in tech all the time. For years, everyone loved to focus on a phone's specs -- how many pixels its screen contained, what level of processor it relied on for its computing power, and so on. But then we reached a point where, for most practical purposes, all of that stuff kinda became irrelevant. Pretty much every modern mobile device from midrange on up is fast. All the displays look stunning. The numbers alone just don't mean much anymore; what matters most is the real-world user experience -- something that can't be quantified.

Then there are sales numbers. Folks in the tech industry love obsessing over how many units a particular manufacturer moved -- and to be sure, such measures have some significance. They can matter for us as users on a big-picture level, to some degree, and they obviously mean a lot for those who are actively invested in a manufacturer's device-specific earnings.

But just like with specs, sales numbers don't tell you the whole story -- particularly when it comes to a phone like Google's Pixel, which has an unusual purpose and a manufacturer that's anything but ordinary.

Pondering Pixel sales

In case you didn't hear, word broke this week that Google's Pixel Launcher app had crossed the threshold to 1 million installations in the official Play Store. Since the Pixel Launcher app is available to download only on Google's Pixel devices, some surmised that its million-installation mark indicated that Google had sold only 1 million Pixel units since the phone's launch last fall -- a number that'd be well below most estimates and expectations.

Now, there's good reason to think that figure might not actually be accurate. As the gang over at Android Central points out, we don't know exactly how Google calculates and updates its Play Store installation numbers -- and a little bit of educated guesswork based on Verizon's publicly released sales data suggests that carrier alone could have sold somewhere in the ballpark of 2 million Pixels over the past several months (a number that, of course, wouldn't include any unlocked or international sales).

But let's set aside all questions of accuracy for a moment -- because the real point here is that focusing on sales numbers alone, whatever those numbers may be, is missing the broader point of Google's Pixel and what the phone set out to achieve.

It's much like the previous analyses we saw about how much profit Google might make directly from Pixel sales and how little the phone itself would "add to Alphabet's bottom line."

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Google's primary goal with the Pixel almost certainly isn't to move billions of units and turn Alphabet into a company that depends on hardware sales for a significant chunk of its income. Remember, Google is first and foremost an ad company. It makes the vast majority of its money by selling ads that are shown on the internet -- and practically everything it does ends up supporting that effort in some way.

Suffice it to say, this is a dramatically different scenario than what most hardware-makers face when they try to launch a new product -- a scenario in which hardware-related profits are the main and most important measure of success.

Google goals

The Pixel supports Google's core business by providing a new standard of comparison to which other Android devices are already being held. It demonstrates the benefit of putting Google services front and center in a way that lets them shine (and in a way other Android manufacturers often opt to avoid). It gives Google its own fully-controlled vessel both for Android itself and for the various other software developed alongside it -- and that, in turn, allows Google to better advance both the overall user experience it presents and the individual software elements it then pushes out to countless devices across multiple platforms.

Google hardware chief (and, not so coincidentally, former Motorola president) Rick Osterloh laid it all out during a late-2016 interview with The Verge:

"Fundamentally, we believe that a lot of the innovation that we want to do now ends up requiring controlling the end-to-end user experience."

The benefit to us as users is apparent in the products, but this approach also pays off for Google -- because the better Google's services and software are, the more time people will spend using them. The more time people spend online, the more data Google is able to collect and the more effective ads it's able to deliver.

Now, would massive Pixel sales numbers help Google reach that goal more directly? Of course. I don't think anyone would doubt that Google would love to become a top Android manufacturer at some point in the distant future.

But based on everything we've seen with the Pixel this first go-round -- including explicit comments from executives, the phone's limited availability (both with the number of carrier partners and the near-constant out-of-stock status at Google's own store), and signs of meaningfully more ambitious efforts in the works for follow-up models -- it sure doesn't seem like sky-high sales figures were part of anyone's plan at this point.

From the aforementioned Verge interview:

Osterloh knows that "We certainly aren’t going to have enormous volumes out of this product. This is very first innings for us." Google’s metric of success for Pixel won’t be whether it picks up significant market share, but whether it can garner customer satisfaction and form retail and carrier partnerships that Google can leverage for years to come.

I'll take it a step further: The true indicator of the Pixel's success will be the impact its presence has on the greater Android ecosystem and perhaps even on mobile tech at large. That's something we won't be able to judge fully for at least a few years -- but if the first several months of the Pixel's existence are any indication, writing the program off as a flop already seems wildly premature.

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