So, you may have heard that Google pulled the curtains off a bunch of new products, notable of which are the Pixel phones, a 5-inch and 5.5-inch pair of high-end Android flagship devices designed to compete against the iPhone and Samsung’s Galaxy devices at the high end. There is no Nexus device this year, and according to Google, there won’t be any in the future.
But why is the Nexus significant in this development?
The Nexus hasn’t always been a brand that has had mainstream appeal. But to Android enthusiasts, the Nexus has always stood for a line of devices that delivered an Android experience that’s the closest to AOSP and also with fast, timely updates to boot for the most part.
The Nexus originally began with the Nexus One, a reference device based on the HTC Desire, and was sold unlocked with a pretty high price-tag at the time without carrier routes. As the Nexus One was designed with developers in mind, and had a build of Android that was pretty barebones, it didn’t catch on with consumers, but enthusiasts and developers liked it bare nature. The Nexus brand arguably reached more mainstream attention with the arrival of the Nexus 4 and Nexus 5, 2 LG-made devices that also had a rather affordable price point for its time ($349 for the 16GB Nexus 4, $399 for the 32GB Nexus 5) while also delivering relatively high-end hardware. That was thrown out the window when the Nexus 6 was revealed, a gargantuan 5.96-inch phone that was also sold for $649, a typical flagship price point. The Nexus 6 did not do as well as its predecessors, which many speculate is due to its high price and polarizing dimensions. The Nexus 5X and 6P followed up next year, and also had a lower price point, with the 5X starting at $349.99 and the 6P starting at $499.99. Many considered the 6P to be at a “sweet spot”, as the phone was nicely packed while at a price point that, while high, is lower than other flagships.
Pixels, pixels, pixels
But the Nexus line is now dead, confirmed by Hiroshi Lockheimer. Contrary to belief, however, the Pixels don’t serve as a direct replacement for the Nexus devices. Rather, the Nexus train has stopped on the 5X and 6P. Instead, the Pixels are a totally new line of devices, with a clear focus on Google services.
As the Pixel is Google’s high-end brand that started with the Chromebook Pixel, the Pixel phones carry a very high price tag, starting at $650 for the 5-inch Pixel at 32GB. It’s $100 extra for 128GB. The 5.5-inch Pixel XL starts at $770, and is another $100 for 128GB.
That introduces new challenges, however.
Pricing the Pixels at such a premium is certainly a very ambitious move, but this is also a risk for Google as the competition is still pretty hot at this point in time.
At the high-end market, Samsung and Apple reign supreme still. While Apple’s iPhone 7 may not be a mind-blowing machine or a serious head-turner, it is still a very solid device that is still getting some solid demand, even if analysts predict lower sales compared to the 6s. And while Samsung is still recovering from its scars inflicted from the Note 7’s battery recall, demand for their handsets is still solid in many countries, and given that both manufacturers have immense brand power, carriers would be more likely to put those in front than any other phone.
This creates a problem for everyone else fighting in the same bracket.
HTC, who used to be the undisputed Android champ, is currently still struggling to make ends meet, especially since its latest flagship, the HTC 10, is not posting solid-enough sales numbers despite being an all-around excellent device. And LG has been losing momentum since the G4, exasperated by the criticisms towards the G5. Other OEMs have tried but failed to even get close to the duopoly (except Huawei), so it’s a bit of a tough call for Google at this point.
There’s another key area that has become a hot topic recently; budget busters. In 2016, the midrange-price market has become ultra-competitive, with the OnePlus 3 basically leading the charge with great hardware at a very compelling price-tag, but also newcomers like ZTE’s Axon 7, Huawei’s Honor 8, Alcatel’s Idol 4S and even Apple’s iPhone SE. These phones cost up to $400 and they promise a chunk of the flagship experience for a lot less cash. Then, you have manufacturers like Xiaomi, who are known for delivering phones that pack in solid hardware for an unbelievable price, sometimes less than $200 for a very capable midranger.
The midrange market is a very fierce part of the smartphone market, sometimes more so than the top-end segment because new phones that promise the flagship experience for less cash keep coming and some of the make justifying the premium on a true-blue top-tier flagship harder to justify.
There’s also other challenges such as it being a Verizon-exclusive when it comes to carrier partners in the United States among others, but arguably, the competition is the tough nut to crack.
Google’s new Pixel devices aren’t Nexus successors, despite the Nexus now being officially dead. Rather, they’re the start of a new line of devices that are clearly aimed towards the high-end with a focus on Google services.
However, positioning those devices at the high-end presents a whole heap of challenges, many of which will prove to be quite an uphill battle for Google to go up against, especially in the realm of competition and brand recognition.
While this likely won’t end up the same way as the Amazon Fire Phone, which was truly a carrier-exclusive and ran a forked version of Android that did not feature Google Play, the chances of it finding success is kinda slim, considering that it not only has to battle Apple and Samsung at the high-end, but the likes of OnePlus, Honor, ZTE, Xiaomi and others at the midrange segment.