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Pixel 4 teaser photo reveals a whole new Google

Commentary: Google is ready to take on the iPhone and Samsung Galaxy in 2019.

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Google's first official Pixel 4 photos.

Google

Google did something un-Googley last week: It officially released an image of the Pixel 4, the next version of its flagship phone. This is a phone we all expected to appear, based not just on rumors, but also on Google's pattern of an annual October release. Teasing a photo of an unannounced phone is a move we expect from LG and OnePlus, but Google's move threw us for a loop. We have some theories about why Google teased its fourth Pixel -- from wanting to get out first with a design decision to taking back the power from leakers -- but I'd like to propose one more. In confirming a square camera array on the back of the Pixel 4, Google is telling the world that it's ready to compete against the iPhone, Galaxy S10 and even sleeper hit OnePlus 7 Pro.

Pixel phones represent an opportunity for Google to showcase the best of its Android OS. Pixels are the first to receive updates and typically appeal to Android purists. But despite Google's brand appeal, the Pixel line has failed to capture the attention of buyers at the same level of Samsung and Apple's phones. Pixel sales have waned year over year. And while slow sales are an ailment felt by phone brands across the board, the Pixel's exclusivity agreement with Verizon surely shoulders much of the blame, leaving casual observers under the impression that the Pixels were available only through Verizon and not for every carrier when ordered from Google's online store.

What's especially shocking about Pixel's struggle is Google's inability so far to turn its massive influence in search and software services, from Gmail and Google Maps to Google Photos, to Google Assistant on every device and Google Drive, into a growing Pixel following. The success of Google Home, the brand's smart speakers, against Amazon's more established Echo, demonstrates that Google can successfully make hardware work. So what went wrong with Pixel?

Google and Apple didn't respond to a request for comment.

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In a rare move, Google goes after Apple's iPhone camera.

James Martin/CNET

Go big or go home

Google's Pixel problem so far is one of boldness. Or rather its flipside, timidity. Relying on Verizon as its carrier partner and word of mouth among Android enthusiasts, has been a tepid approach that can't stand up to the advertising weaponry so deftly wielded by Apple and Samsung.

But the $400 Pixel 3A, announced in May at Google's annual I/O conference, turns the tide. The cheap Pixel we always needed sells in-store with Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile, and you can use it with AT&T and Google Fi when you buy the phone through Google's website. This added carrier exposure already boosts awareness of the Pixel as a brand worth considering. 

But even more important is Google's advertising strategy that pits the Pixel 3A against last year's iPhone X in a clean, assertive style reminiscent of Apple's own billboard ads.

Google brilliantly touts its software prowess compared to the iPhone X, suggesting that the budget Pixel 3A takes brighter low-light photos and has better essential features, such as maps, than Apple's product.

Now playing: Watch this: Pixel 4 photo released by Google
1:45

A bolder Pixel 4?

It will take more than clever marketing and broader carrier support to sell the Pixel 4 in numbers that matter. Google will also need to shore up product gaps if the future phone is to effectively compete on the high end. 

With Samsung's Galaxy S10 Plus and Apple's iPhone XS selling for an eye-watering $1,000 each, the Pixel 4 will need to bring not just the same screen, camera and battery features as those pricier phones, but also extras like wireless charging and an arresting design. 

On the looks front, Google has played it safe, bordering on boring, with a cookie-cutter design that barely strays from the previous year and colors so bland the company can't commit to a hue. The Pixel 3 isn't called pink, it's Not Pink. The 3A is Purplish. 

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The Pixel 3A in Purplish, right, looks purple in the right light.

Angela Lang/CNET

Pixel phones typically sell for less than the iPhone and Galaxy S, but Google's price advantage isn't a sure thing either. Although the Pixel 3 cost $800 when it launched last year, less than 2018's iPhone XS and Galaxy S9, are still more expensive than the OnePlus 6 and 6T of the same year, which started at $530 and $550, respectively. 

The OnePlus 7 Pro, starting at $650, its highest price OnePlus phone yet, might it could still look like a good deal to buyers seeking the best-value Android phone. If the Pixel 4 comes out at over $800, T-Mobile buyers (where the OnePlus 7 Pro sells, but an unlocked model will work for AT&T, too) could still gravitate to it over the Pixel 4. $200 extra dollars in the pocket is $200 in the pocket, and it's likely that the Pixel's price will rise, especially with a fancier rear camera in play.

Google's Pixel price has steadily climbed year over year -- the Pixel 3 costs 23% more than the original Pixel did in 2016.

Ever since the Nexus days when Google first experimented with phones of its "own" (made by other manufacturers), Google-branded handsets have taken a curious backseat to the tech giant's other hardware and software products. Pixel phones have all the ingredients to sell millions, and yet, so far, they haven't. Around 85% of the world's phones run Android. Google owns search, maps and voice assistant, areas where the iPhone struggles. It is a known and trusted brand.

When you factor in its enormous software foundation, no name in tech holds more smartphone sway or brand recognition than Google. Perhaps with the right combination of features and advertising, the Pixel 4 will come closer to being a household name, too.

Published June 17, 2019. Update, June 18 at 10:03 a.m. PT: Edited for clarity.

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