This week Google launched its much-anticipated flagship smartphone, the Pixel 4. The previous Pixel iterations were unable to reach the masses, but will this new successor give Google the spot it deserves in the ranks?

The U.S. smartphone market has long been dominated by Apple and Samsung, who combined enjoy a little over 70% of the market. This figure rises to 80% among smartphone users who are on postpaid service plans mainly offered by the nation’s top four carriers: AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless1. All other smartphone makers are left battling for the remaining piece of the pie, which often results in forgoing valuable margins to gain/maintain market share while simultaneously trying to keep up with the giants on the innovation front.

This creates a less than ideal situation for wireless carriers as the lack of strong alternative brands adversely impact their negotiating power with industry leaders. Additionally, the high average selling prices of today’s flagship phones result in carriers taking on debt to offer financing and/or subsidies on these devices. For example, when customers purchase a $1,000 flagship smartphone from a carrier they often choose to pay in interest-free installments over 24 to 36 months, financing that is essentially on carriers’ shoulders.

In the past, brands like HTC, Motorola and LG were helping carriers balance these acts, but nowadays most of these brands are primarily catering to the lower end of the market. This is where Google made its entrance in October 2016, as an option to fill the void in the higher end market with the introduction of the first Pixel phone in partnership with Verizon Wireless. Since then a new Pixel has launched every October, bringing us to yesterday’s Pixel 4 launch – its best smartphone hardware to date.

Like its predecessors, the Pixel 4 excels in imaging quality, as Google’s approach to imaging has been slightly different than other OEMs that place more focus on hardware than software. Google has been enjoying the crown in the imaging space with a single camera module powered by advanced computing based on complex algorithms. The new Pixel 4 also enjoys similar computational imaging support plus houses an extra telephoto lens for enhanced zooming capabilities.

Of course, every smartphone OEM prioritizes imaging in their product marketing; however, according to NPD’s Mobile Consumer Tracking data imaging quality is the fifth most important factor (behind battery life, storage capacity, performance speed and display) impacting consumers’ decision making process for a new phone purchase. Therefore, having the best in class imaging does not necessarily equate to high sales volumes and market share.

Other noteworthy features of the new Pixel 4 are the improved display supporting 90 Hz refresh rate for fast scrolling and enhanced gaming experience and a motion radar chip that allows the phone to be controlled via hand gestures. Now, I would be downplaying the potential of this miniaturized radar solution by limiting its purpose to hand gestures as it will allow Google to explore new differentiating capabilities such as digital health (i.e. measurement of blood glucose) in the future, but in its current form it has not reached its full potential. LG’s latest flagship, the G8, offers similar hand gesture control functionality based on a slightly different technology, and the feature did not help LG grow share.

Source: The NPD Group, Connected Intelligence Mobility Survey, 2017- 2019

What truly sets the new Pixel 4 apart from its predecessors is the wide distribution it is poised to relish when it hits shelves on October 24
th. The first three Pixel series phones – the Pixel, Pixel 2, and Pixel 3 – were Verizon Wireless exclusive devices, which may have limited Google’s potential to reach a wider audience. This arrangement changed in May when Google launched the mid-tier Pixel 3a and 3a XL with U.S. Cellular, Sprint, and T-Mobile alongside Verizon Wireless. The new Pixel 4 will now be carried by all major postpaid carriers including the cable MVNOs Spectrum Mobile and Xfinity Mobile. These carriers have already begun marketing the Pixel 4 in their digital advertisements, thus Google should benefit greatly from this wide distribution.

According to NPD’s Connected Intelligence Mobility Survey, the awareness around the Pixel brand has doubled in two years, and carriers’ heavy marketing of the Pixel 4 should further boost this awareness rate. Notably, the Pixel is also the fourth brand behind Apple, Samsung and LG in consumers’ smartphone brand consideration list. It’s pretty difficult to convert iPhone users to Android devices, as over 90% of iPhone owners report stay within the Apple ecosystem when it’s time to upgrade, but the $799 Pixel 4 has an opportunity against Samsung’s Galaxy phones to win some much needed market share and solidify Google’s place as a top smartphone contender.


1Source: The NPD Group, Connected Intelligence Mobility Survey, 2017- 2019