The Pixel 3a could be Google's 'Moto G' moment

When you zoom out and consider Google's midrange Pixel in the context of recent Android history, a pretty telling parallel comes to mind.

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Google / Getty Images

In the grand scheme of things, for an Android enthusiast, Google's Pixel 3a phone really doesn't seem all that electrifying.

And it's no wonder: The Pixel 3a, on its surface, is a lower-end remake of the premium Pixel 3 model that came out last fall. When we have devices showing up that are foldable, poppable, and packing more screens than a TV station's control room (for better or maybe for worse), a decidedly muted midrange model of a phone we already know seems downright mundane.

But you know what? The most important announcements often aren't the most exciting ones. Having lived with and closely considered the Pixel 3a for several days now, I'm more convinced than ever it has the potential to be one of the most significant and impactful announcements to come out of any Google I/O conference — an announcement whose force could be felt and looked back upon for years to come.

The simplest way to understand why is to think back on another unassuming, mundane-seeming phone from several years ago. I'm talking, of course, about the original Moto G.

The Pixel 3a's 2013 connection

Let's bring ourselves back to the summer of 2013 for a second. Tinder and Snapchat were the hot new apps of the moment; "selfie," "phablet," and "emoji" had just been added into the Oxford online dictionary; and countless parents were hearing "Let It Go" for the first of what would be approximately 7.2 million times. (If the song's chorus didn't automatically just start playing in your head, congratulations: You're far more sane than the rest of us.)

That same year, Motorola came out with its first phone created entirely under Google's guidance: the original Moto X. (Remember, Google bought Motorola in 2011, but phones are typically under development for a full couple of years before they see the light of day.)

The Moto X, to put it mildly, was a critical darling. Android enthusiasts and professional phone reviewers (myself included) heaped praise upon the phone for its unusual approach, especially for that time, in which specs were de-emphasized and Motorola instead focused on creating a device with an exceptional all-around user experience — one that added thoughtful and genuinely valuable features into the existing Android framework without arbitrarily changing things simply for the sake of change.

To wit: That inaugural Moto X piloted the idea of always-on voice activation —"one of the coolest and most useful smartphone innovations to come along in years," as I put it at the time — along with the now-standard notion of having relevant info flash on your screen when the phone isn't actively in use. It introduced an automatic driving detection system before such technology was in any way commonplace and gave phone-owners the opportunity to quite literally design their own devices in a manner we haven't seen attempted since.

And yet, for all its positives and the many factors the phone got right, the Moto X was not, by any accounts, a commercial success. The phone gave Motorola plenty of geek cred and helped set the stage for the kind of company it'd become during that brief Google-owned era — and it certainly gave all of us plenty to talk about — but it didn't rake in much dough or turn Moto into anything close to resembling a major force within the Android ecosystem.

Fast-forward now four months to that same November: In an understated event held in Brazil, Motorola announced a different device called the Moto G (which would come to the U.S., too, a couple weeks later). It wasn't an exciting phone, by any means; it was a lower-end but eerily similar version of the more enticing Moto X.

The Moto G was "technologically boring," as Wired said at the time. And yet, it was "striking just how similar it [was] to the Moto X when you handle[d] it," The Verge noted — going on to say:

Without comparing the two directly, you'd be hard pressed to tell the difference between them. Motorola tells us that this was intentional: The Moto X look is the company's design language, and it isn't concerned with the Moto G distracting customers from its flagship.

There was one immediately noticeable difference between the devices: The Moto G cost a mere $180 — roughly half the price of the Moto X, which sold for $380 unlocked at the time of its launch.

The tech world issued a collective yawn, but guess what? While the Moto X failed to make much of a commercial splash, the Moto G was a smash hit. The phone was credited with single-handedly "resurrecting" Motorola in certain markets, driving record phone sales across the globe, and eventually becoming the company's best-selling smartphone ever. As recently as last year, Motorola said it had sold 70 million Moto G devices since that first model's launch and that the phone had served as a key part of the company's long-term success story.

A lot of random-seeming history, I realize, but stick with me: All of this is critically important context for what we're seeing take shape with the Pixel 3a today. Time to zip our way back to the present — with one more quick pit stop along the way.

Pixel 3a parallels

With its first-gen Pixel phone in 2016, Google had a critical darling on its hands. It was a "home run," as The Verge put it — "pure Android at its absolute best," in the words of CNET. And yet, despite similarly glowing reviews for the phone's second-generation model and an ample amount of enthusiasm for 2018's third-gen version, the Pixel has remained a niche product.

It's true that, despite a recent quarter in which Google fell victim to the same sales slump being experienced by almost every phone-maker around the world, the Pixel has been gaining impressive ground and seeing significant growth within the smartphone market — especially when you factor in all the caveats associated with the device. But still, in the big picture, it's but a tiny drop in the bucket of the broader Android ecosystem.

So what did Google do? As seemed inevitable from get-go, it came out with a cheaper model — one that offers the same sort of experience as the regular Pixel but in a less premium package and, oh yes, at roughly half the price.

After using the Pixel 3a for roughly a week now, I've been blown away by the parallels between this phone — and the apparent strategy surrounding it — and what we saw six years ago with that first Moto G. Just like the Moto G, the Pixel 3a is strikingly similar to its higher-end sibling. The phone is so similar to the regular Pixel, in fact, that I often can't which is which at a glance and end up grabbing the wrong device by mistake.

More important, though, using the Pixel 3a doesn't feel like using a "midrange phone"; it feels like using a Pixel. The user experience is almost identical across the two devices, from the design language and software all the way down to the outstanding camera — something you certainly don't tend to see in a sub-$400 device. Heck, the 3a's camera is arguably better and more capable than any non-Pixel phone's camera, even in the $800-and-up range.

And, zooming out to an even bigger-picture view, the Pixel 3a comes with the same Pixel-standard guarantee of timely and reliable OS and security updates for a full three years from the device's launch. Compared to the embarrassingly poor post-sales support you get with almost every other Android device these days — even those you pay a thousand dollars to own (and yes, even with Project Treble in the equation) — that's a pretty phenomenal kind of feature to have. And it goes a tremendous way in increasing the phone's value over the time you're likely to own it.

See where this is going? Just as the Moto G brought a previously unheard of level of quality to the budget realm in 2013, the Pixel 3a is bringing the type of user experience you used to be able to get only via a high-priced Pixel phone into the midrange arena. Sure, the phone's plastic exterior is less premium than the regular Pixel's glass-based body — but it certainly doesn't look or feel cheap, and quite frankly, some people may prefer the more durable polycarbonate material to the more easily shattered glass casing. And yes, the 3a's screen and processor are a step down from what's present in its pricier sibling, but lemme tell ya: Unless you're unusually tuned into that type of thing or crazy enough to be doing precise side-by-side comparisons, you aren't gonna give any of that a single ounce of thought.

Back to the Moto G for a moment: In 2013, then-Motorola-CEO (and Google employee) Dennis Woodside said something telling, as paraphrased by The New York Times:

The low-end smartphone's goal is not to be a flashy piece of gadgetry representing the latest innovation. It is an effort by Motorola to return to growth by reaching as many people as possible.

It's true that no one was jumping up and down with excitement when the Moto G first came out — because, yes, it was by most measures a pretty boring phone. But you know what it accomplished? It brought a previously unattainable level of quality to the budget phone domain. From the looks of it, the Pixel 3a could take a page from its playbook and do the exact same thing with the midrange realm — particularly in the areas of camera quality, user experience, and post-sales software support, all three of which are incredibly important parts of the phone-using picture and yet are areas that have remained largely neglected in the midrange market.

There are still plenty of questions to be answered about how the Pixel 3a saga will play out and where exactly Google will go from here. And without a doubt, the biggest variable of all is how well Google itself will manage to sell the 3a's message and convince prospective phone-buyers that it's the right device for them (particularly now that the phone is available on almost all the major U.S. carriers — a privilege the regular Pixel phone hasn't even enjoyed up til now).

If Google figures out how to sell the thing, though, the Pixel 3a has the potential to seriously shake up the midrange Android phone market and go down in history as the company's modern-day Moto G — the affordable product that brought its message to the masses and made it into a serious smartphone player.

The seeds are certainly planted. Now it's up to Google to grow them into something significant.

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[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]

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