Why Google Pixels aren’t as popular as iPhones and Samsung Galaxy phones

The Google Pixel 7 and 7 Pro have been launched as the best Google phones to date, with better camera lenses, software and features, including an easier way people with blindness or low vision to take selfies. The company added a bunch of Google Assistant features and touted new photo tricks like blurring old photos.

It’s clear that Google put a lot of work into its latest flagship phone. What’s less clear is whether anyone will care.

In a world dominated by iPhones and Samsung phones, Google is not a contender. Since the first Pixel was released in 2016, the entire line has sold 27.6 million units, according to data from analyst IDC — a number that is one-tenth of 272 million phones shipped by Samsung in 2021 single. Apple isn’t relentless, having shipped 235 million phones over the same period.

The Pixel has long been a paradox in the mobile phone business. The family is the key carrier for Android, the most popular mobile operating system in the world, sponsored by one of the most successful and well-known companies. However, it lags far behind its biggest rivals and is a niche player in a world it essentially controls.

It’s a bit surprising for Google phones to sell so low, as the Pixel phones have been well-loved by reviewers and consumers (at least those who have heard of them). In addition, they are the first phones to have new features and Android versions months or even years before other phones.

A series of decisions and strategic moves have put Google in this position, which the company is trying to unearth. The fall Made by Google event is usually a plethora of different products, from smart speakers to security cameras. Thursday’s event focused solely on the Pixel name.

But here are some of the reasons why Google is playing catch-up now.

Lack of access

It seemed to make sense for Google to tie up with Verizon as exclusive partners when the original Pixel was first released. After all, an exclusive partnership between Google, Motorola and Verizon to promote the original Droid helped bring Android into the mainstream.

But that exclusivity meant fewer people could buy the phone in the US, a strategic failure with long-term implications. Consumers were able to buy Apple and Samsung phones from any carrier for years before Google released its first Pixel phone in 2016, so it didn’t help that the Google Pixel’s first three years were Verizon-only, limiting its reach brand to customers who were already choosing between iPhone and Galaxy.

That limited reach has kept Pixels out of consumers’ minds as the phone brand sector has shrunk. Even without competition from LG, which stopped selling phones in 2021and brands like Xiaomi selling premium Android phones in China but not in the US, Pixels are far less well-known than iPhones and Samsung Galaxy devices.

“Despite the Pixel getting rave reviews, Google’s biggest challenge to gaining share has been poorer marketing spend and carrier presence, both areas currently dominated by Apple and Samsung,” said Nabila Popal, director of research at IDC.

The Pixels aren’t the only phones locked to a single carrier — Motorola had continued its lucrative exclusive deal for the Droid with several trackers. But times had changed and when Google finally opened up its phones to other carriers with the Pixel 4 in 2019it had to play catch-up with other carriers and consumers.

Delayed material

By then, iPhones and Samsung flagships had cemented themselves in the public consciousness as devices that pushed the limits of both software and hardware, with powerful chipsets and multiple camera lenses. Google’s phones only focused on software with mediocre technical specifications and cameras, keeping the same main camera sensor from the Pixel 2 to the Pixel 5.

Despite improving photo software every year to compensate, Google phones still have a reputation for lagging behind other flagship phones in hardware. Pixel phones only appealed to enthusiasts rather than general consumers because of this software-intensive approach with a cleaner version of Android that didn’t have the tweaked overlays found on Samsung or Motorola phones.

Google’s course has been corrected by including improved cameras and its new interior Tensor chipset in last year’s Pixel 6 phones and has even better hardware in the new Pixel 7 phones. With a triple rear camera (found in the Pixel 7 Pro) and custom silicon, Google’s pivot has led to fun and innovative camera-focused features like cleaning unwanted bystanders from your photos and helping blind and visually impaired users take selfies.

Identity crisis

Google, however, still lacks a strong identity for its phones that sets them apart from Samsung’s iPhones and Galaxy devices. For years, enthusiasts and members of the media have been the Pixels’ loudest advocates, calling them good camera phones, but even Google doesn’t know what its phones do best. For example, the company described its Pixel 6 devices as “the phone for you,” citing customization features that actually came to all phones that received Android 12.

Additionally, the company seems torn on whether its Pixels offer serious value or are overstepping the mark as flagships. While the Pixel 7 has most of the bells and whistles of its pricier Pro sibling for a more mid-range starting price of $600, the Pixel 7 Pro competes against flagships from Samsung and Apple with a starting price of $900 — but without the name recognition them on the phones.

“Part of Google’s challenge is that smartphones are a mature market and consumers are — understandably! — happy with Samsung and Apple,” said Avi Greengart, an analyst at Techsponential.

Removing Samsung may not be Google’s goal, Greengart explained, as doing so could destabilize Android. Both phones use the same operating system, hence Samsung’s continued dominance of the phone market still a win for Google. As long as Pixel phones sell well enough to be profitable, Google will likely keep making them.

The US market is the most promising for Pixel sales. Without cheap Android phones from Xiaomi and others, and with LG out of the game, the Pixel has grown to 2% of the North American market in the second quarter of 2022, up from 1% in the same period in 2021. That’s a pittance in comparison with Apple, which has 52% of the market, or even Samsung, which has just over a quarter of the US market.

“Pixel is not yet a household brand like Galaxy,” said Anthony Scarsella, an analyst at IDC.

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