How the Pixel 4 epitomizes Google's hardware gamble

With the Pixel 4, Google's showing us why it started making hardware — and showing off the type of value it alone can deliver.

Google Pixel 4

Allow me to play Mr. Obvious for a moment: The Pixel 4 is a phone. That much is plainly apparent — right?

Hang on, though, because there's a twist: This week's Google event, at which the Pixel 4 was officially launched, wasn't really about phones. It wasn't about laptops, either. At its core, it wasn't about any hardware, in fact, despite being a "hardware event" in every outward sense.

Sure, the physical products may have taken center stage, but those gadgets are ultimately all just vessels for what Google's really trying to sell us. This week's event was actually all about the Google ecosystem — and, more specifically, the Google Assistant that serves as the nucleus of almost everything Google introduced.

The Pixel 4, more than any product before it, is the embodiment of that philosophy. And by looking beyond its surface and thinking carefully about what the product represents, we can see the sharpest picture yet of what Google's trying to achieve.

Google's hardware-hawking genesis

Before we get into the Pixel 4 specifics, we need to back up and rewind for a moment — all the way back to this same week in 2016, when Google launched its first self-made Pixel phone. Back then, Google hardware chief Rick Osterloh made one thing clear: The reason for all these new products, for this whole new hardware-making adventure, was that the company needed to claim control over how its various services were being presented. That was particularly true for Assistant, the new virtual helper Google would launch on that very same day.

Android phone-makers, y'see, were increasingly interfering with Google's vision for the software by mucking up the interface, adding in their own second-rate services, and keeping Google's real money-makers — the keys to the company's long-term success — from shining as effectively as they could. And with Assistant coming into the picture, Google needed a way to counter that problem without clamping down too tightly on the manufacturer-friendly flexibility that made Android what it is.

As Osterloh put it in an interview at the time:

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. ... We needed to build a system that actually ran [Assistant] perfectly.

Why is Assistant so critical, you might be wondering? Well, Shirley, it's simple: Google's core business revolves around collecting data and then using that data to deliver ads. But with every passing year, people are turning less to the traditional search box and more to apps and connected devices for information. The future of the online ad industry — and thus of Google itself — is being threatened by irrelevance, in other words. If a company that relies on ads to exist wants to survive, it has to adapt.

And that's exactly what Google's doing, with Assistant leading the charge. Assistant is designed to be available everywhere — on your phone, on your laptop, in your car, all over your home, and even in your eager little ears. (What do you think those new Pixel Buds are really all about?) It's the next-gen version of the classic Google search box, and Google's slowly but surely been working to make it an integral part of your life over these past few years.

And that brings us to today.

The Pixel 4 pinnacle

So back to the Pixel 4: When you really stop and think about it, the phone's most prominent selling points are less about the hardware and more about the Google experience inside of it. The product's official marketing page tells you all there is to know.

The page's first and most elaborate selling point? The Pixel 4's camera, of course. And sure, the device's new multi-lens module is a key part of what makes the phone's level of photography possible — but, as Google's materials emphasize, it's the machine-learning-driven processing that really does the magic. It's a "software-defined camera," as Google engineer Marc Levoy put it in this week's presentation — one that does "less with hard-wired circuitry and more with code." The "special sauce" that sets it apart, Levoy noted, is Google's unique approach to "computational photography."

Software. Code. Processing. It's as Googley as it gets, and the hardware itself is little more than a skeleton to house the virtual genie inside.

The next point on the Pixel 4's page gets into the phone's presently-exclusive access to a dramatically improved and expanded voice-control experience. And that experience is powered by — yep, you guessed it — the Google Assistant. With much of the voice command processing now happening on the device instead of relying on a remote-data-center connection, the Pixel 4's version of the Assistant is able to work in a whole new way and accomplish all sorts of previously impossible tasks (in theory, at least; no one's had the phone for long enough yet to say for sure how well it works in the real world).

After that comes the Pixel 4's radar-powered hand gesture system. That's certainly rooted in hardware, but its primary purpose is to make it easier to access and interact with your phone — and guess what? The more you access and interact with your phone, the more you use Assistant and other Google services.

Even little touches like the new Pixel-exclusive Recorder app, which transcribes speech in real-time and then makes it available for immediate searching, are decidedly software-centric and revolving around traditional Google strengths. Combined with Google's unmatched promise to provide three full years of both timely operating system and security update rollouts — an element that in and of itself should be a significant selling point, especially for business users — the Pixel 4 really feels like the culmination of everything Google's been building up to over the past few years and the clearest indication yet of what the company's working to accomplish.

Make no mistake about it: This truly is "the Google phone" — a term that's existed unofficially for a decade and that Google itself is now embracing, with a device that finally seems to live up to the name. More than anything, the Pixel 4 is a gateway to Google's ecosystem of services and a way to experience them in a uniquely native environment. The phone and what it represents are precisely why Google got into this game in the first place.

The question, though, is if Google can manage to translate all of that into any widespread adoption of its Pixel products. It's the same question we've been asking for three years now, so it only seems appropriate to wrap up by revisiting my thoughts from a previous Pixel launch:

For the majority of users, Google's own Pixel is differentiated in the areas that are going to be the most meaningfully and practically impactful, even if they aren't the ad-friendly areas that grab the most immediate attention. As someone who recommends devices to others, it seems increasingly appropriate to view the Pixel as the de facto "best all-around balance" standard for most people — the "iPhone of Android," as it were — with other devices serving more niche-oriented needs and priorities. And, you guessed it: That's all because of software.

Now let's see if Google can ever figure out how to get the phone on store shelves and actually sell it in a way that counts.

We've seen measurable progress in the "getting it on store shelves" part, with all the major U.S. carriers now selling the Pixel for the first time this year. But the "actually selling it in a way that counts" part — the part that requires not just a commendable product but also effective marketing, positioning, and mainstream phone-buyer awareness in order to happen — well, despite some promising and often-overlooked trends, that's the part where Google's still got its work cut out for it.

One thing's for sure: The Pixel 4 is the most refined and fleshed-out vessel we've seen for Google's smartphone vision. With it at the helm, this fourth year of Google's hardware-making initiative should be an interesting — and potentially telling — one to watch.

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[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]

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