Google I/O 2012 was one of the most critical points in Google’s history. Most people don’t realize this, but it was at this event that Google began its endeavor into independently produced hardware. The device – the Nexus Q – was a flop.
Before the launch of the Nexus Q, Google has shown interest in self-produced hardware with its line of Nexus-branded phones, though these were typically produced in concert with an existing Android manufacturer. The Q, however, was entirely designed by Google, from the concept all the way to the marketing.
Today, Google’s interests in hardware are clear to anyone that will listen. Last year, the company introduced its first line of ‘Made by Google’ products – devices designed, branded, and sold by Google. While many praised the first line of devices, the most important device, Google’s Pixel phone, did not sell as well as hoped.
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In October, Google unveiled its second line of ‘Made by’ devices, headlined by the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL. These devices did not help fix Google’s problems, with the Pixel XL 2, in particular, being the culprit.
While the Pixel 2 XL has been a bit of a debacle, it is hardly Google’s first flop in hardware. In fact, Google’s hardware endeavors throughout the last five years have been plagued by many of the same issues. Today, we’ll take a brief look at Google’s hardware history, and figure out where it is going wrong.
Arguably the most publicized of any Google product so far; Google infamously unveiled a pair of augmented reality glasses in 2013. The device featured a liquid crystal on silicon display on the upper right that would display information like weather and navigation. Additionally, the device featured a camera for quick point-of-view captures.
While many found the device to be wondrous, much of the early press revolved around privacy concerns when using the device. Additionally, the device was far from accessible. The ‘explorer edition’ started at $1500 and was only available via invite for a significant amount of time.
Glass is important to consider when reviewing Google’s hardware woes, as not only is it one of Google’s first and most-known products, it was a unique product. No other company had a pair of AR glasses such as Google and had it been successful, Google would have had a truly revolutionary product.
Google made little progress on Glass between 2013 and 2015. In early 2015, Google announced it would stop Glass production.
Why did Glass fail? I suspect for a couple of reasons.
I don’t believe privacy concerns were the issues. Yes, had they been even more accessible there would have been stories, but I don’t think it would have affected sales to harshly. I would like to argue that the reason Glass failed was manufacturing issues.
Over a two year period, Google was unable to create enough of these to make them publicly accessible, let alone lower the $1500 price. Had they figured out how to make them cheaper, Google could have had a strong foothold as a hardware manufacturer.
Earlier this year, Google released the ‘Google Glass Enterprise Edition.’ The device features a few spec-bumps while maintaining a similar price tag.
Google first launched the Chromebook program in 2011. Chromebooks run Chrome OS, which is designed by Google and runs primarily on the chrome web browser. Throughout the existence of the program, virtually all sales of Chromebooks have been from manufacturers like ASUS, Acer, and Samsung.
But, that doesn’t mean Google hasn’t tried. In 2013, the company unveiled the Chromebook Pixel. The device featured a beautiful aluminum frame, an Intel Core-i5, and LTE variants. Critics praised the device, and many felt it was the perfect example of what a Chromebook should be.
The problem, however, was that it started at $1299 in the US. Its price alone resulted in almost no one owning a Chromebook Pixel.
I once again point to manufacturing issues as the reason the Chromebook Pixel was unsuccessful. While Google was able to design good hardware, they were unable to produce it in quantity large enough to lower price. I suspect if Samsung had created the same device, it could have been significantly cheaper.
Last month, Google tried again with the spiritual successor to the Pixel, the Pixelbook. Critics once again praised the device for its design and speed. However, it starts at $999 in the US. While it’s early to tell, I would bet that once again, Google will not make a foothold in Chromebook sales.
.Google introduced the original Pixel and Pixel XL at an event in October 2016. The devices headlined the new ‘Made by Google’ campaign and featured top-of-the-line specs. Beautiful design, and a competitive $649 entry price made it a clear winner.
Critics praised the device as the best Android phone you could buy, and Google began a media blitz promoting the device hundreds of times a day on television and other mediums. The Pixel, however, was not as successful as Google hoped.
The first reason we can point to for poor Pixel sales is the carrier-exclusive Verizon agreement in the US. But the main issue with the Pixel? No one could get ahold of one.
Throughout its entire year of availability, the Pixel would regularly require three weeks or more lead time when placing your order. This apparent inability to manufacture on a proper scale once again lead to weak sales for a Google product.
In the lead up to the Pixel 2 launch, I heard more than one person say that if they rereleased the Pixel 1 but made it accessible for purchase they’d be happy. Unfortunately, they did neither of these things.
Last month, Google unveiled the Pixel 2 and 2 XL. The 2 XL was particularly notable for its striking design and high-end features. Early reviews found the device to be pretty great, except for the screen.
While at first, the screen woes stopped at the color pallet, users started to experience screen burn-in after just a few weeks, resulting in a public controversy that had Google releasing a software update to change the color profile on the device.
While it is currently unclear if the update will fix the burn-in issues, the problems didn’t stop at the screen. Some users received devices without an operating system installed, as well as a cutout for headphones that don’t exist. To top it all off, the device remains back ordered and challenging to get.
It appears that not only was Google unable to fix the manufacturing issues it experienced with the first Pixel, but it also overextended itself with the Pixel 2, causing even more, problems without solving the delay.
Writing for The Motley Fool, Leo Sun further points towards manufacturing as the culprit, while pondering why Google thought things would change from previous attempts:
But the real question is whether or not Google is actually capable of evolving into a hardware maker like Apple. Google’s short-lived attempt at smartphones with Motorola produced moderately successful low-end and mid-range phones like the Moto G and Moto E… [B]ut the two generations of the higher-end Moto X (in 2013 and 2014) flopped in the premium market, which is dominated by Apple and Samsung.
It’s unclear why Google thinks things could be different this time around. Google clearly wants to produce high-end flagship devices that showcase stock Android…
Google’s quick acquisition and re-sale of Motorola led to little except for the Moto line of phones, which as Sun discusses saw moderate success. However, when it came to high-end products, Google found little success.
Despite these failures, there is clear demand for a Google-made premium device, as evident by the now discontinued Nexus program. The main difference with Nexus is the phones are made in conjunction with others. If Google wishes to succeed, maybe they will once again need the manufacturing experience of others.
It is clear to me that throughout Google’s hardware endeavors, the company has consistently put out excellent hardware, but has been unable to succeed due to its current manufacturing status.
It’s important to note before concluding that Google hasn’t utterly failed on every product. The Google Home seems to have wide-spread availability and success. Additionally, while it likely isn’t hard to manufacture, it would be unfair not to mention the wildly successful Chromecast.
But, Google’s most crucial non-search asset is Android, and the company apparently wants to have a successful Android phone. In these endeavors, the company has found little success. If they ever want to see a turn-around, they will need to make a significant investment in the one area that has always been their Achilles’ heel: manufacturing.
While some may argue that, as one of the largest companies in the world, Google could quickly fix manufacturing if it were indeed the problem, this is not the case. Manufacturing requires more than money to successfully pull off, as evident by recent examples such as Tesla.
When Google acquired a large-part of HTC earlier this fall, I had presumed when reports came in the primary purpose of this acquisition would be to gain manufacturing expertise, but this turned out not to be the case. If Google wants to solve manufacturing, it will require acquiring talent with superior management expertise or companies with a history of successful products.
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