Google has a lot riding on the Pixel 4. When it’s released later this year—call it mid-fall—the flagship smartphone will represent the very best of Android, a potent pitch to iPhone owners to jump ship. A critical rollout like that usually requires months of buildup, a strict cone of silence punctured only by calculated teases. Or you could go another route, as Google did Wednesday. You could just tweet it.
Bigger hardware leaks have happened. Gizmodo famously obtained an iPhone 4 in 2010, months before its scheduled release. By the time the Pixel 3 launched last year, it had leaked more than a colander on Splash Mountain. Ditto the Pixel 3a. But it’s hard to remember the last time a company got ahead of a leak simply by confirming it. And hard to argue that it’s anything but the smartest move Google could have made.
Consider the circumstances. Earlier this week, multiple tech blogs had published purported renders of the Pixel 4. There’s even a video, from Unbox Therapy, showing off metallic Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL models. Just a few weeks into summer, and plenty of holes have already sprung in the dam.
The future suddenly looks unappetizing: months and months of renders and rumors and leaks and speculation, culminating in an awkward joke on the presentation stage in October, something of the “Stop us if you’ve seen this one before” variety.
The point of a Pixel device has never been how it looks, but the features it packs in.
Google opted not to endure that. Instead, it showed off the Pixel 4 on its own terms, and not just in terms of high-resolution promotional photography. By inviting you to “Wait ’til you see what it can do,” it has also refocused the narrative around a pivotal release. The point of a Pixel device has never been how it looks, but the features it packs in.
“What they’re doing is leaking a design,” says Tuong Nguyen, a tech industry analyst for research firm Gartner. “But because they’re not really a hardware company, it’s not as relevant.” By dispensing with the look, Google can direct attention to its adventures in computer vision and speech and, possibly, futuristic gesture recognition. It turns the conversation back to what Google’s really selling: Android.
That’s not to say there’s no inherent interest in what the Pixel 4 looks like. There is, especially given that it’s a dramatic departure from its predecessors, as far as rectangles go. “You’re breaking away from that two-toned back it had,” says Cliff Maldonado, founder of mobile industry tracker BayStreet Research. “I think that’s been a slight drag on the Pixel. Samsung’s a much prettier device. iPhones are really honed to look beautiful. I think this is a step in the right direction.”
The image Google shared also shows off what appear to be dual rear cameras, a flash, and a sensor in a square bump at the Pixel 4’s rear, and no fingerprint sensor there. That’s a departure from the Pixel 3, but frankly the picture doesn’t give all that much to go on. But that’s also the point. If you’re paying a grand for a smartphone, hopefully you’re protecting that investment with a case anyway. It’s what’s on the inside that counts—especially if you’re Google.
The obvious question at this point: Why, then, doesn’t everyone do this? If all you have to do to head off leaks is leak it yourself, why doesn’t Tim Cook tweet the iPhone XI already? It all depends on how much you have to lose.
For one thing, by promoting a smartphone that won’t come out for months—one with a relatively fresh look and apparently new features—Google winds up discouraging potential customers from buying the flagship that’s already on the market. “You’re basically capping your Pixel 3 sales,” says Maldonado. Apple has felt those same impacts in a concrete way, as Tim Cook lamented ahead of the iPhone 8 launch in 2017.
“It’s that there are more rumors floating and more press articles and mentions of new things, and when that happens, a percentage of people delay,” Cook said on CNBC at the time, explaining the bite that leaks had taken out of Apple’s second quarter earnings that year.
But Google is not Apple, and the Pixel is not the iPhone. In fact, Google CFO Ruth Porat acknowledged on the company’s latest earnings call that the Pixel was selling worse year over year, “reflecting in part heavy promotional activity industry-wide, given some of the recent pressures in the premium smartphone market.” If the Pixel 3 isn’t selling anyway, there’s not as much harm in diverting attention to the next generation.
Besides, stewardship over Android means Google has a unique endgame in all this. “Google’s a platform play,” says Tuong. “They’re not really about selling the most Pixels, or more Pixels than any other Android manufacturer. It’s more about this ecosystem that they’re building.”
So now you know what Google’s secret new smartphone looks like, complements of Google itself. Does that make you any more or less likely to buy it? Probably not. But you’re thinking about it sooner and more seriously than you would have otherwise—and wondering what it’ll be capable of. Some trick.
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