3 burning questions about Google's Pixel 3a

As Google's Pixel 3a phone makes its way into the world, it's time to think through the bigger-picture implications of the device's arrival.

Google Pixel 3a

After years of rumors, anticipation, and speculation — and maybe the occasional related libation — Google's midrange Pixel is finally a reality.

Google announced the Pixel 3a, as it's now officially known, at its I/O developers' conference this week. The device looks like the regular Pixel, acts like the regular Pixel, and even shares the regular Pixel's exceptional camera — all the way down to its wildly impressive Night Sight low-light capability. It comes with the same guarantee of three full years of timely and reliable OS and security updates, too, which is something no other Android phone even comes close to matching.

And yet, the Pixel 3a sells for a measly $399 — $479 if you want the plus-sized XL version — compared to the regular Pixel 3's $799 regular price (or $899 for the XL model of that device). Suffice it to say, that's quite the dramatic difference.

For all we know about Google's new midrange Pixel option, though, there are still some pretty significant unanswered questions — some bigger-picture puzzles that'll help us fully understand the Pixel 3a's impact on the greater Google ecosystem and Android landscape.

Think 'em through with me, won't ya?

Question #1: How will the Pixel 3a's presence affect regular Pixel sales?

We've been hearing a lot about Google's Pixel sales numbers lately — most recently because of last week's admission that Pixel sales had dropped from the first quarter of 2018 to the first quarter of 2019. But as we also discussed in great detail last week, all signs suggest Google's actually been doing quite well in the relative picture with Pixel sales and that while the entire smartphone industry has been struggling, Google's by and large been bucking that trend and boosting its standing.

That brings us to the Pixel 3a: While it seems logical that the expansion of the Pixel line from a single high-priced model to a more diverse two-tiered setup could only be a good thing for adoption of the Pixel brand in general, it's hard not to wonder what it'll mean for sales of the regular Pixel phone, specifically. Will the presence of a phone that's half the price and yet filled with most of the same standout features cause fewer people to flock to the regular Pixel? Will would-be Pixel purchasers — be they existing Pixel owners looking to upgrade in the future or new Pixel converts thinking about picking up their first Google-made phone — opt to get its less expensive sibling instead?

It's true that the regular Pixel phone offers some significant advantages over its lower-priced 3a brother — not least of all its more premium build quality, with a glass-centric body instead of plastic, and its more advanced internals that make for a snappier all-around experience — but for a lot of typical phone-shoppers, those sort of differences may not be meaningful enough to justify the higher price tag. Surely at least some of the Pixel-purchasing crowd will be swayed to spend less and get a still-quite-similar lower-end phone, won't they?

Pixel 3 vs Pixel 3a Google

The Pixel 3, at left, and Pixel 3a, at right

Google may be betting that the type of person who buys a premium phone is generally distinctive enough from the type of person who buys a value-oriented product that it won't have a huge impact — and maybe the company is thinking, too, that the staggered launch schedule of the regular Pixel and the midrange model will balance things out to some degree. After all, if the regular Pixel line continues to churn out its new models around October and the midrange Pixel line continues to launch its products in May, that means this fall's upcoming Pixel 4 will have about a five-month window in which the lower-priced version is a full generation behind.

Still, it's an interesting question to consider — and one whose answer we won't know for a while yet.

Question #2: What will the Pixel 3a's arrival mean for Android One?

As we discussed on my podcast last week, Google's Android One program has thus far basically been positioned as the midrange- and budget-level Pixel gap-filler — a way to get the same basic concept as a Pixel phone in a third-party device and at a lower price. Android One is in many ways a lot like Google's Nexus program of yesteryear in that it offers phones made by regular Android device-makers but with unmodified Google software, no baked-in bloatware, and a "pure Google" Android experience.

Crucially, Android One phones also come with a contractually mandated guarantee of reasonably fast and frequent OS and security updates for two years from each phone's launch date. The devices don't typically get upgrades immediately, as Pixel phones do, but they tend to receive 'em within a few months of each release's launch (which is far more than you can say for almost every other Android phone out there). So while Google has focused on the high end of the smartphone hardware spectrum, Android One has offered a similar sort of mindset — at a lower and less "holistic" level — for anyone who values an optimal user experience and ongoing software support but doesn't want to pay Pixel-level prices for the privilege.

With Google now selling its own Pixel 3a for $399 — and bringing with it that same upgrade guarantee but for three years instead of two, along with the best-in-class camera no other device in that price range even comes close to matching — what argument remains for going with a third-party Android One device? The entire program was basically constructed to fill a gap that, at least at the midrange level, no longer exists. It's a second-best option for something that now has a first-best choice.

To be sure, parts of the Android One ecosystem still have their own unique appeal — namely those that fall more into the budget price range than the midrange price level. If you're looking to spend $200 to $300 on a phone, you can find a relatively decent Android One device that's gonna be miles better than anything else you'd buy for that amount of money.

But once you start getting close to $400 — like with the Nokia 7.1, which costs about $350 and had previously been my go-to recommendation for someone looking to get a commendable Android experience at an affordable price — well, it gets much more difficult to think of a reason why you'd be well-advised to go with an Android One model over the Pixel 3a.

Has Google's launch of the Pixel 3a effectively cannibalized Android One? Is there any reason for the program to exist or any motivation for manufacturers to continue to embrace it in the longer-term, outside of the still-gap-filling budget level?

And speaking of that budget level...

Question #3: Will we see a 'Pixel 3b' at some point in the foreseeable future?

I've long theorized that not only was a midrange Pixel inevitable — it was also inevitably going to be only the tip of the iceberg. As I've noted several times before, the entire point of the Pixel program was to "fix" Android, from Google's perspective — to reclaim control over the platform and provide a vessel in which Google's vision and its services can take center stage and shine. So why would Google want to limit itself to a single high-priced model? It doesn't make sense.

Neither, frankly, does the notion of sticking to only a high-priced phone and also a midrange model. Expanding the Pixel line to include the more affordable Pixel 3a is certainly a significant step, but it's hard for me to believe that's where Google's aspirations will end. I mean, think about it: A fair amount of folks around the world aren't going to pay $400 for a phone. By starting the Pixel line at that price point, Google is effectively excluding all those people from its grand Android vision.

With a new, starting-from-scratch hardware program, it's only sensible for Google take things one step at a time. So what's the next step after this new midrange Pixel's arrival? Will we see a budget-level option after this? And if so, when?

Not to do too much reading of the tea leaves, but I can't help but notice that the naming convention Google opted to go with — "Pixel 3a" instead of the initially rumored "Pixel Lite" name — conveniently leaves the door open to a one-more-level-down "Pixel 3b" possibility. And as hardware costs continue to drop and lower-end components continue to get more and more capable, it's quite conceivable to imagine Google creating a "Pixel-caliber" experience with budget level prices in another few years, just like it did with its Pixel-to-Pixel-3a progression from 2016 to now.

Ultimately, all we can do is wait and see how these areas play out. With every passing year, though, it's becoming increasingly clear that Google is indeed playing its own game with its Pixel products — a game no one Android device-maker can compete with directly and a game that, still today, is just getting started.

Your move, Google.

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[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]

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