It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Twenty days ago, when Google revealed its 2017 Pixel phones, the talk was all about the “panda” Pixel 2 XL, the one with a white aluminum back and black glass window at the top. The larger of Google’s new Android flagships was shaping up to be an instantly iconic device with its own nickname and cult following. The “Pixel 2 XL” moniker would quickly be forgotten and we’d all talk, in beatifying tones, about the great Pixel Panda. All the pieces were falling into place for Google to own the October hype cycle with its new smartphones, which should have been the best that the Android world could offer.
— Marques Brownlee (@MKBHD) October 6, 2017
And then the actual Pixel 2 XLs came out and people discovered that their displays have alaundry list of problems. The halcyon time when Android fans should have been gloating about their awesome new flagship with thin bezels, excellent speakers, and a superb camera has turned into a dark nightmare of canceling preorders and questioning one’s loyalty to the Google camp. How could Google get something so basic so thoroughly wrong?The analysis of what went wrong and where will have to wait for another time. We still don’t know the full extent of the Pixel 2 XL’s screen troubles, which Google is “actively investigating” — though we do know enough to withdraw The Verge’s recommendation to buy the 2 XL, and to revise our review of it. If you have to buy a phone today, we’d encourage you to look elsewhere, with the smaller Pixel 2 being a very good candidate that suffers from none of its larger sibling’s screen irregularities.
While we wait for Google to complete its investigation, the interesting question to ponder is what exactly Google is hoping to achieve with its Pixel phones. If you ask the company itself, mobile hardware is no longer a hobby, and if you ask devoted fans of the Pixel camera like myself, you’d hear similarly high praise for the Pixel lineup. Over a long enough timeline, the Pixel is Google’s answer to the iPhone. But in the nearer term, and on a more realistic scale, Google’s only really seeking to have a buffer against Samsung’s dominance within the Android ecosystem. In both cases, Google’s first goal is the same: Google wants to be taken seriously as a hardware company.This is why the Pixel 2 XL screen issues are such a devastating problem for Google’s Pixel lineup and trajectory. Google isn’t trying to push vast quantities of units out there like, say, Huawei, a company that recently claimed it had surpassed Apple to become the second-biggest smartphone vendor in terms of units sold. Google isn’t trying to generate an immediate return on its Pixel sales, either, even with the distinctly premium pricing of the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL. For Google’s bottom line, hardware revenues are an imperceptible teardrop in a monsoon of advertising income.
Google’s hardware business right now is in the reputation-building stage of development. We all know the Google name and the rainbow-colored logo, but we’re not used to seeing that branding on an actual piece of hardware. So this is the time when many of us will be forming opinions about how much we can trust Google with physical devices. It’s a lot like encountering the Nike logo on watches or the Adidas brand on bottles of aftershave: a familiar name in an unusual context.
THE ENTIRE PIXEL BRAND IS BEING TARNISHED BY ONE ILL-JUDGED COMPONENT CHOICE
My biggest worry about the Pixel 2 XL display drama is how it will filter out to the wider public. Interested Android fans will read up on the subject and they’ll know the exact issues of a blue tint when viewed off-axis, muted colors, and potential screen burn-in, and they can then make a reasonably informed decision about whether they can live with them. (My position is that hell no, you shouldn’t accept such flaws on an $850 device.) But these things will seep out into the mainstream consciousness as well, whether through decontextualized tweets or some impassioned complaining to friends over a pumpkin spice latte.Some of the fallout is already apparent in the conversations I’ve been hearing around the Pixel 2 XL. People are conflating the 2 XL’s display issues with the Pixel 2, assuming both devices have problems. That’s a logical way to think, because in almost all cases of a phone having a regular and an XL (or Plus) version, the screen tech remains the same. But in the case of Google’s 2017 Pixels, the smaller one has an OLED screen from Samsung, while the larger one has an OLED panel from LG — sort of the same tech, but entirely different leagues in terms of quality.Another problem that’s being reported by users of both Pixel 2 models is a high-pitched noiseproduced by the phone. We haven’t experienced this issue across four review devices from the Pixel 2 line, but that’s the pile-on effect of a major flaw like the Pixel 2 XL’s screen: other, smaller, less universal issues get amplified by the big one.
The great irony of this situation is that Google started making Pixel phones so as to be less reliant on its hardware partners. Now it’s Google’s hardware partner that is sinking the Pixel 2 XL and punching holes in the hull of the entire Pixel operation. All Google really wants is to be able to have an alternative to Samsung at the super premium end of the market. But building good hardware is not a trivial matter, and Google is learning that as it goes.It’s not like Google’s competitors haven’t faced similar issues to the current Pixel 2 XL screen crisis. Just last year, Samsung had the Galaxy Note 7 battery fiasco, and who can forget the classic Apple Antennagate situation around the iPhone 4 launch? The difference, and the thing that makes Google’s problem more existential, is that both the iPhone in 2010 and the Galaxy Note line in 2016 were well-established brands with plenty of customer loyalty. Apple and Samsung’s mature phone businesses could weather a hardware fault. But can the same be said of Google’s still budding Pixels?For Google, the 2016 launch of the Pixel smartphone line was a renewal and a reboot. It signaled the company was moving on from its uneven Nexus efforts, which were themselves plagued by fundamental issues around Bluetooth connectivity, camera wonkiness, and basic reliability. Nexuses were generally cheap, so some of that stuff was forgivable — but the Pixels should be the fresh start of uncompromising, top-tier devices. If Google keeps failing on the basics — another example being the Google Home Mini problem that recently had the smart speaker record everything and send it all to Google — its hardware division could develop a bad reputation that it might not be able to escape.