Whatever happened to Google Wireless Project Fi?

Google tried to succeed in three sections of the wireless industry, Android OS, Pixel smartphones and Project Fi services. They have been successful with Android but even with the powerful Google brand name they struggle with smartphones and services. Why?

google phone screen
REUTERS/Regis Duvignau

A few years ago, with much fanfare, Google launched their wireless service called Project Fi. They had intentions of becoming a leader if not “the” leader in the wireless space. After all, they now had all three corners of the market in one company. So, why have we not heard much of their progress in the last few years?

Today, Google has Android OS, they have their own smartphones called Pixel and they now had the service called Project Fi, which is an MVNO and resells both Sprint and T-Mobile.

In fact, it seems Project Fi users already have what the customers of both Sprint or T-Mobile hope to get if the merger is approved. Namely, one unified network made up of both, automatically switching between the two carriers, depending which has the best connection at the moment. This sounded like Google would be successful in services with this strategy.

Google successful with Android, but not so much with Pixel or Project Fi

Project Fi started in 2015 and I think the entire industry was waiting to see whether this would make a huge impact on the industry or not. At that time, I said Google does not enter a space unless they can lead in that space. In fact, I said they typically transform the space and create a new space which is easier for them to lead in.

At the time I said it was an interesting idea for Google to enter all three areas of the wireless services space. If they were successful, they could really build and grow even more than they have already done. I said they had a strong brand name and that could help them achieve this goal.

However, I also said the chances of them having that level of success were not very good. While Google is super-successful with their Android, they are not so successful with their Pixel smartphones. At that time, I didn’t know one way or another whether they would be successful in services. However, with their weak position in smartphones, I thought it would be an uphill climb.

Since that time, we have not heard much about this from Google. They are still successful with their Android, but not with their Pixel smartphone or their Project Fi services.

When it comes to moving into new segments, there are no guarantees of success. Just look at how other companies have tried and failed to enter this space.

Mobility leaders are AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint

The wireless industry is a funny place. Wireless carriers that have built a strong brand relationship with the customer base are the top performers. The top two carriers over the last decade have been AT&T Mobility and Verizon Wireless, which together have the vast majority of the wireless marketplace. Next comes T-Mobile and Sprint who have two smaller slices of the wireless pie. These four carriers have the vast majority of customers.

So, is Project Fi stuck or can it begin to grow faster? That’s always possible. In fact, as we move forward there are other companies who have also entered the wireless space and seem to be doing well even though Google is struggling in this sector.

Comcast Xfinity Mobile started a year and a half ago and continues to win more market share every day. Charter Spectrum Mobile just started and has the chance to do the same thing. Next year, Altice Mobile will enter and have the same opportunity. These companies all market the same kind of MVNO services as Google Project Fi.

So, if Xfinity Mobile is doing well, why isn’t Project Fi? Good question.

Xfinity Mobile, Spectrum Mobile, Altice Mobile new challengers in MVNO space

If I had to compare, I would say Xfinity Mobile is the leader in this suddenly growing MVNO space. That’s curious because Project Fi was started years earlier, in 2015 and could have been, should have been successful as well.

So, why is Google not as successful with Project Fi as Xfinity Mobile seems to be? Let’s take a closer look at the differences between these two companies.

Xfinity Mobile does not advertise and market the same as other wireless competitors. They don’t have a goal to lead the wireless industry. Instead, their goal is to strengthen their company, stabilize their own customer base and help them continue to grow. They see mobility as the fourth leg on their stool of wireless, pay TV, Internet and telephone.

Google comes at this wireless opportunity from a completely different direction. They don’t get into any business unless they can lead. In fact, Google doesn’t enter a space unless they can re-invent and expand it and lead that new space. This is the plan for their Android, Pixel and Project Fi operations.

However, as successful as Google has been in some areas, they struggle in others and always have. They have been trying to succeed at smartphones and services for years with little success. This reminds me of other companies who had the same problem.

Remember Microsoft decade long attempt to make progress in the wireless and smartphone industry. They failed year after year until they eventually gave up. Remember the Facebook phone or the Amazon.com Fire Phone launched around 2014. All were flops.

Easier for Google to lead if they create a new industry segment

So, why are companies only successful in certain slices of the wireless pie? Why are AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile the leaders in wireless network services? Why are Apple iPhone and Google Android like Samsung Galaxy leaders in the smartphone market?

I believe the reason is simple. It all has to do with brand and trust. Companies that succeed in their space have built strong brand relationships with customers who trust them. However, because a customer trusts them in one area doesn’t mean they will trust them in another area.

Companies are successful because they build brand and trust

Companies in other spaces have built the same level of brand and trust with those very same customers. So, it’s not a matter of winning customers over. It’s much harder to build a quality relationship with a customer and move them from another company to yours.

It’s much easier to create a new segment and lead that area. Create a new slice of the pie and attract customers to that. That’s how Google has won in certain segments.

That’s the mistake they made with their Pixel smartphone and Project Fi wireless service. They didn’t reinvent anything. They entered the competitive space and battled industry leaders in those segments and so far, they have lost.

Google thought the power of their brand name would carry them to success. They were wrong.

Google reinvented the search industry. Their search was better and faster than others like Yahoo when they launched. They also created other industry segments or vastly improved them which attracted users by the truckload. Their navigation and traffic app are just two examples.

They didn’t invent the segment, they just improved it so much they won.

Google has tried and failed at many other areas as well. Do you remember their health search engine which they closed years ago? The product was great, but it was simply not a commercial success. They throw ideas against the wall and whatever sticks, they build.

What’s the future of Project Fi and Pixel?

So, what’s the future of Project Fi and for that matter Pixel? There are two options. Continue to try or exit the space.

They have been trying for three years with Project Fi and many more years with their smartphones. To date, it doesn’t seem to be getting the same traction as Comcast Xfinity Mobile which launched last year.

It could be a moderate success for Google but has not reached the kind of industry leadership they always shoot for. Based on that, I wonder whether Pixel or Project Fi will stick around.

It could stay with us and Google could continue to try and try again. Others like Microsoft, Facebook and Amazon tried and failed as well. Will they re-enter and try again? They could.

After all, Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cox and others tried and failed years ago. Comcast’s re-entry with Xfinity Mobile is successful today. There’s a lesson to be learned. Never give up.

So, who knows whether Project Fi will stick around or not. I think Google wants this to be successful because it can open more doors of success, growth and dominance for them. We’ll just have to wait and watch and see what happens next.

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