Phones

Google Pixel cautiously rolls dice with Verizon exclusivity

The deal is a throwback to the original partnership around the Motorola Droid. That doesn't mean success is guaranteed this time around.

James Martin/CNET

Verizon's exclusive deal with Google's Pixel has been seven years in the making.

The relationship between the network giant and the search titan began in 2009 with the Motorola Droid. T-Mobile's G1, which launched a year earlier, is widely regarded as the first phone with Android. But Google's mobile operating system didn't go mainstream until Verizon positioned the Motorola Droid as a counter to the iPhone, which was exclusively at AT&T.

Verizon will be the exclusive carrier of Google's Pixel.

James Martin/CNET

Verizon and Google hope to make magic again with the Pixel and Pixel XL, which are exclusive to the carrier. (Don't worry. Hard-core Android fans can still buy the phones unlocked directly through Google.)

The deal marks a change in Google's strategy, as it presents the Pixel as a truly high-end phone that will compete with the likes of Apple's iPhone 7 and Samsung's Galaxy S7.

Google has generally opted to sell its Nexus phones directly to consumers, but this time it's chosen to partner with Verizon to take advantage of the carrier's distribution and promotional power.

Exclusivity deals are a throwback to the early days of the phone business, when hot phones like the Motorola Razr and the iPhone were locked to a single carrier. The phone maker would benefit from prominent placement at carrier stores -- still the most common place for a US consumer to buy a phone -- as well as a place in one of the wireless provider's many commercials.

But exclusives have largely fallen by the wayside as handset makers push to get their products into as many hands as possible. The iPhone and Samsung's Galaxy S phones, for instance, are available at virtually every carrier. In fact, the more recent crop of exclusive devices, such as Amazon's Fire Phone, available only through AT&T, quickly failed.

Meeting each other's needs

Verizon believes it's the perfect partner for Google because of the data-intensive nature of the Pixel phone. The phone's marquee feature is Google Assistant, a virtual helper that needs to ping the network to take advantage of Google's computing and search powers. Then there's the Daydream View, the new virtual reality headset that works with Pixel -- users could be chewing up more data than ever.

"The features like Daydream, features like the Google Assistant quite frankly require that there's a reliable network that's quick and is accessible all of the time," said Jeff Dietel, Verizon Wireless' vice president of marketing.

Verizon's ad for Google's Pixel.

Screenshot by Alfred Ng/CNET

Along with Verizon's vast network, Google also gets access to the carrier's many resources from the moment Pixel arrives in stores for the October 20 launch.

"Getting deep integration with one partner, and making sure we get the retail experience right, making sure we do customer service right, all that is tough to do," said Jason Bremner, Google's vice president of product management for mobile phones. "We wanted to make sure that was seamless."

Verizon, meanwhile, believes the Pixel will be enticing enough to lure customers from its rival carriers.

Dietel is betting that the main draws will be the device's powerful camera, which Google touts as the best available option for phones, and the Pixel's quick battery charges.

Shifting trends

So far, the only phone that's been attractive enough to convince folks to switch has been the iPhone, which stopped being available exclusively to AT&T customers in 2011.

The demand has shifted in recent years, with sales of unlocked phones rising, said Ross Rubin, an analyst with Reticle Research.

"The attraction of exclusive phones for a carrier is just not as powerful as it once was," he said.

Consumers can still buy the Pixel unlocked through Google, but they won't get access to deals. For example, Verizon customers will get up to $300 off for trading in older devices. The carrier is also offering a free Daydream View VR headset to anyone who preorders the Pixel prior to October 19.

Despite these perks, Verizon's version of the Pixel takes away what hard-core fans have loved about Google's smartphones: the pure Android experience.

If you order a Pixel through Verizon, you'll get it with Verizon Messaging, Go90 and MyVerizon on the device.

"It seems counterintuitive to take what's supposed to be this pure Android experience and load it up with a lot of Verizon interface and app work," Rubin said.

If Verizon's preinstalled apps really bother you that much, you could always opt to buy the Pixel directly through Google and still use it with Verizon as a carrier. Or if you prefer to buy the phone in a store, Verizon's version of the Pixel is compatible with other carriers and already comes unlocked.

Verizon remains confident in its exclusive relationship, looking back at its success with the Motorola Droid.

"We've had a long history with Google," Dietel said. "I think the market's going to decide if we're successful."

CNET's Richard Nieva contributed to this report.

First published October 5, 5 a.m. PT.
Update, 9:15 a.m. PT: Adds detail that Pixel phones are unlocked, even through Verizon.