More than every other major Android flagship, the Google Pixel has targeted iPhone buyers. In comparison to the rest of the Android space, the company has focused heavily on user experience over gimmicks, aesthetics over spec sheets. Its success in actually converting people away from Apple’s walled garden has been limited at best, but Pixel 4 year might pose a unique opportunity…
Pixel’s biggest strength is its camera
If you missed it, Apple just announced a bunch of new iPhones. There’s the iPhone 11, which is the followup to last year’s every-man iPhone XR. And there’s the iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone 11 Pro Max — the spiritual successors to the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max.
There’s no need to sugarcoat it: These iPhones aren’t exactly spilling over with new useful features and functionality. The camera hardware and software upgrades are surely the most notable additions — Apple essentially used them and nothing else to justify the addition of the “Pro” moniker on the higher end phones — and even they are mostly just catch-up to the Android status quo.
The LG G5, which launched in 2016, added a much-praised second ultrawide angle lens. Apple seemed to suggest that this was groundbreaking for the iPhone 11 and 11 Pro, and that may be true for those who just want whatever the latest iOS-running device is, but it’s certainly not true about smartphones. And it’s still very unclear how the new iPhones will stack up in actual image quality.
Yes, I know that historically the “but Android phone did it first!” argument can be very tired in some contexts, and ignore the nuance of only doing some features once they’re ready or good enough, but I think for the sake of clarity and fairness, Apple truly is lagging when it comes to cameras. (It’s also true that Apple has fallen from being the unarguable leader in smartphone photography, in my view.)
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that the Pixel especially has touted its cameras as a primary strong point. Regardless the number of sensors (Pixel is getting a telephoto lens this year, its own version of catching up), Pixel users were likely unfazed by Apple’s announcements yesterday. Most people just want to capture great stills, and Pixel is leading the way there. Many would say I’m making the call too soon, but I’d bet Google will maintain its lead this year.
The opportunity here is twofold: Google could send the message that even with its elite “Pro” phones, the iPhone is still playing catch up with the Pixel (especially with “Night mode,” I’d assume, given that Apple barely gave it a passing mention and showed samples that didn’t look stunning). And second, it’s likely that the Pixel 4 will indeed be a truly exceptional camera — especially in improving the ways Pixels have already exhibited their computational photography prowess.
Assistant is awesome, while Apple is silent on Siri
Another thing about Apple’s announcements yesterday that makes this year a unique opportunity for Google is actually something that wasn’t mentioned — Siri. While Apple has floundered and seemingly neglected its smart assistant with the latest batch of iPhones, Google is doubling down on its lead in this space with the Pixel 4. Not only does last year’s Pixel 3 still have way better AI smarts than this year’s iPhone 11 Pro, the Pixel 4 is kicking things up a notch.
watch your mouth! https://t.co/vbV9BIwOfG
— Stephen Hall (@hallstephenj) September 11, 2019
I talked about this more in my piece about the ways in which the Pixel 4 is going to be a major step forward for Google’s software:
It might feel unusual to assign a generational successor to a service like the Assistant, but I think that’s an apt description of this year’s changes. With the Pixel 4, using the Assistant is going to feel much more like seamlessly interacting with AI and less like issuing isolated commands.
Google first showed off this next-generation Google Assistant off at Google I/O 2019, and we got another glimpse at it in a leaked ad for the phone. In that ad, Google shows off using the phone to seamlessly search for a photo, send it to a friend, and send a text, all with just your voice and no repeated hotwords. With time, this new on-device Assistant will allow you to essentially control your device with your voice.
We don’t know how useful it will be yet, but one thing’s clear: It’s leaps ahead of Siri on the iPhone.
I think there’s another argument to be made that a smart assistant — a truly smart assistant, unlike Siri — is not just a nice-to-have feature. Every time I try out an iPhone I miss the Assistant dearly, and with the Pixel 4 it’s moving even further ahead. It’s a core part of the way I use my phone (when I’m on a Pixel), and it will likely become even more that way. It could be years before Apple catches up.
Pixel 4 is Pixel’s biggest upgrade yet
Perhaps most simply, I think Google can take advantage of the fact that the iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro are both modest-at-best upgrades over recent iPhones. I mentioned above that the cameras are really their biggest upgrades for anyone coming from the last two generations of iPhone (iPhone X and iPhone XS), and it just so happens to be the Pixel that has leaped ahead of those over the last two years in the one major way in which they are an improvement.
To be fair, it’s easy to see how this would benefit no one but Apple. I think it’s a lot easier to think that those already bought-in with iOS and Apple’s ecosystem will just take Apple’s catch up with gladness — that’s how this demographic has generally responded to other ways in which Apple has had to “catch up.” Did the iPhone getting wireless charging push people to Android, or did iPhone users simply say “thanks, I’ve been waiting for that!” and upgrade to the latest iPhone? I think we know the answer.
But for people even considering jumping over to the Pixel, I think now might be Pixel’s best chance at standing out since the first one. Keeping the comparison strictly between Apple and Google, Pixel 2 was overshadowed by the iPhone X, and Pixel 3 was the modest “tock” upgrade from Pixel 2 that ironed out some of its flaws. The Pixel 4 seems like a true third-generation or the Pixel line.
This year, the Pixel 4 will bring a 90Hz Smooth Display — which Apple fans, of all people, should be interested in if they’ve used iPad ‘Pro Motion’ and want it on a smartphone. Google’s introducing face-based security that will be benefitted by the Soli radar sensor, making it the only Android phone to compete with Face ID directly. Its cameras — the longstanding iPhone user bragging point up until a few years ago — will likely be amazing. And there’s the aforementioned Google smarts, too.
I’m not going to be so optimistic as to think Google has a chance at magically making a substantial dent in Apple’s monstrous US market share this year. But for the thoughtful iPhone buyer who will be comparing the iPhone 11/Pro side by side with the Pixel, I think the latter will be at its most appealing yet.
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