The Pixel 4's perplexing predicament

How do you sell people on something that's not only intangible but also difficult to describe?

Pixel 4
JR Raphael, IDG

Well, this has sure been an interesting week, hasn't it?

Now, hang on: I'm not talking about that other news going on in the good ol' U.S. of A. right now. That's a different column for a different publication. No — here in the land o' Android, the high-stakes debate revolves around the Pixel 4 and whether Google's latest flagship phone is a device worth buying.

And you know what? The more you think about that question, the more you realize just how prickly of a situation Google's currently facing as it works to turn its phone from niche-level, enthusiast darling into mainstream success.

I often find historical parallels to be a useful tool for making sense of present-day situations. And while "historical" may be a relative term when it comes to mobile technology, it suddenly dawned on me that the story we're seeing play out with the Pixel 4 right now has an awful lot in common with a major milestone in Google's past.

Put on your thinking caps, gang. It's time to get philosophical.

The Pixel 4 philosophy

We'll come back to that historical connection in a minute. First, we need to think through what actually makes the Pixel 4 special — what qualities it possesses, regardless of whether it's a phone you'd personally purchase or not, that are truly exceptional and noteworthy in the field of Android options.

It's a trickier question than you'd expect to answer. I mean, think about it:

  • The Pixel 4's camera is spectacular, without a doubt, but let's be honest: We're reaching a point where other device-makers are catching up enough in the field of photography that the difference between one commendable phone's pictures and another is almost academic. Unless someone spends a ton of time taking photos of the night sky — or devotes an unusual amount of energy to studying the fine detail in side-by-side comparisons, as reviewers alone tend to do — are the Pixel 4's photography-related advantages really going to be that meaningful for most people? I'm not so sure.
  • The Pixel 4's radar-based hand gesture system is certainly quite novel — and genuinely practical, I'd contend, in certain limited circumstances (both in enhancing the convenience of the phone's face unlock system and in providing a way to control certain phone functions with minimal fuss and interruption). But for now, at least, it's more of an interesting added nicety than anything that'll truly convince someone who isn't already sold on the Pixel brand that they need this device.
  • The phone's presently exclusive new Assistant setup is a welcome enhancement over the standard Assistant implementation, but it really is more of an evolutionary change than a revolutionary one — and, again, it strikes me as more of a nice little enhancement than a broadly marketable selling point.

So what is it that makes the Pixel 4 special, then, if not those outward-facing qualities that Google itself is emphasizing in its presentation of the phone?

Let me end the suspense: It's the overall user experience — a fancy way of saying the big picture of what the device is like to use in the real world and how it's likely to hold up in the years that you own it. That's the area where Google achieves something no other Android manufacturer can provide and the area where the Pixel 4 offers an unmatched level of quality and value. And that, unfortunately for Google, is something that's extraordinarily difficult to impress upon the average phone purchaser — because you really have to live with a device in your day-to-day life for a good long while to appreciate it.

As almost anyone who uses a lot of Android phones will tell you, the experience of using a Pixel phone is markedly different from the experience of using most other Android devices. It's not about all the little bits and pieces; it's about how they all come together to create a complete and cohesive-feeling whole. It's about how Google's services blend seamlessly into Google's software and everything exists together in a native-feeling, consistent environment.

And that's to say nothing of how the experience evolves over time, with the Pixel being the sole Android device to come with a guarantee of three full years of timely and reliable operating system and security updates (both of which really do matter, on a variety of levels — including, most critically, privacy, security, and performance).

It's all about the forest, in other words — not the trees. And it's no wonder such a quality is difficult to convey. After all, a flashy phone exterior or low-bezel design catches your eye and makes a device seem exceptional on the surface. Big numbers on a spec sheet are easy to quantify. But over the two to three years that you're likely to own a phone, it's hard to argue that those factors will have the same impact as the device's software and the experience it creates.

And therein lies the pickle: How do you get a typical habit-following phone buyer to understand or appreciate qualities that are so intangible? How do you convey the notion of a device simply being more pleasant to use, in an abstract sense — or the significance of knowing your phone will receive software updates as they're released instead of six to 12 months later (or sometimes never)? How do you explain that with Android in 2019, the factors that tend to have the greatest impact on you over time aren't the ones that are easiest to measure or see with a passing glance?

It isn't easy. And it isn't made any easier by the fact that the Pixel 4 comes with some big buts attached — especially the one about the device's unexceptional battery life. Google isn't helping itself by adding that kind of asterisk onto an already challenging-to-sell picture.

And that brings us back to the past.

Hello (again), Moto

The year was 2013. Google had just come out with what was technically its first self-made phone, though with a very different set of circumstances surrounding it.

The device was the Moto X — the result of Google's short-lived marriage with Motorola and a phone whose saga suddenly seems relevant again today.

The Moto X, as you may recall, didn't have the flashiest appearance or the best specs in the land. Lots of folks looked at the phone and said, "Pshaw! Why should I pay this much for a phone that runs that processor and has only that many gigawatts when I can get Fancy Flagship A and its superior specs for the same price?"

All right, so I'm paraphrasing. But you get the idea: On paper, the Moto X wasn't the most exciting player on the field. It didn't have the best specs, it didn't have the showiest design, and — here's the real déjà vu moment for ya — its stamina wasn't exactly exemplary.

Despite all of that, though, the Moto X was an absolute pleasure to use. As I wrote at the time:

If you're looking for specific isolated pieces of technology ... the Moto X probably isn't the phone for you. It's by no means a perfect device, and there are absolutely individual areas where other smartphones come out ahead.

But if you're looking for a thoughtfully designed phone with genuinely compelling features — and, most important, a cohesive and outstanding overall user experience that'll delight you from the moment you pick it up — you'll be hard-pressed to find another product that matches what the Moto X provides.

That all sounds strangely familiar, doesn't it? Now, let's be real: It's obnoxious that after all this time, Google still hasn't figured out how to make a phone with better-than-middling battery life. It's a shame that, in 2019, the company's fully self-made flagship still comes with asterisks attached and issues to be ironed out at the time of its launch.

But just like with that original Moto X in 2013, the Pixel 4 offers an overall user experience no other device comes close to touching — even in spite of those irritating asterisks. Its value is less tied to the type of processor inside or the amount of included internal storage (which, really, is far less significant with an Android phone today than most people make it out to be) and more about the device's difficult-to-quantify differentiators.

At the same time, of course, the most important of those differentiators are also all present in the now-deeply-discounted Pixel 3 as well as in the midrange Pixel 3a, so take from that what you will. (And yes, there's another interesting Google-Moto parallel lurking in there.)

Putting it all together...

The Pixel, as I first contended following the original model's launch three years ago, is the rebirth of Google's unrealized Motorola dream — an even more ambitious attempt to create what the company tried to achieve with the Moto brand years ago but couldn't quite pull off with its 2013 realities.

Unfortunately, that also means the same core challenge that was present in 2013 remains a hurdle today — the challenge of translating a device's intangible strengths into significant sales that stretch beyond the enthusiast domain. Even if the various asterisks weren't present, that'd be a difficult hurdle to overcome.

At the end of the day, it's always easier to focus on the trees than to step back and consider the forest around them. To its credit, Google's come an impressively long way with hardware over the past few years, particularly when it comes to visibility and availability of its Pixel phones — and it's already created a standard of comparison to which other devices, Android or otherwise, are being held. That's no small feat.

But regardless of what progress has been made, the company's clearly still got its work cut out for it. And on some level, it's hard not to feel like we've seen this story before.

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[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]

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