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Pixel 3 phones aren't selling, and it's probably Verizon's fault

Commentary: Google's carrier exclusive with Verizon isn't doing Pixel sales any favors.

Angela Lang/CNET

Google says it's sold fewer Pixel phones year over year due to fierce smartphone competition on the high end, but that probably isn't the entire story. There's a good chance that the company's agreement to make Verizon the Pixel's exclusive US carrier plays a role. 

On Monday, Ruth Porat, CFO of Google's parent company Alphabet, explained declining Pixel sales as due in part to "heavy promotional activity industry-wide" and "recent pressures in the premium smartphone market." Even with deep discounts, people just aren't buying Pixel phones, despite best-in-class camera performance and glowing recommendations from CNET and other outlets. 

The Pixel 3 was CNET's top Android phone of 2018. So why haven't buyers been snapping it up like hotcakes? 

There might be a few reasons for this. First, times are tough across the board. The smartphone market has been slowing down. Apple just announced that it sold fewer iPhones than it did a year ago. People are keeping their phones longer between upgrades, and prices are skyrocketing year over year. New phones are entering the market, like T-Mobile's "premium affordable" OnePlus 6T, and buyers may be holding their collective breath to see how foldable phones and 5G networks pan out in 2019. (Hint: not too great so far.)

But for the Pixel phones in particular, Verizon's exclusive backing might be almost as much of a hindrance in getting the word out as it is a benefit. Verizon is the US' largest carrier, which gives the Pixel the advantage of being discovered when buyers walk into a shop or peruse the carrier's website. 

But the Pixel is also plagued by a strong misperception that Verizon is the exclusive seller, period. In fact, you can buy the Pixel 3 phones through Google's online store for use with any US carrier, as well as Google's own hybrid Fi network

Limiting carrier exposure surely doesn't help get the word out, and you would think that Google would have as much clout as Apple and Samsung in getting its phones on any wireless provider it chooses.

Google's mostly-direct-to-consumer-except-for-Verizon sales model clearly isn't working, and I'm not surprised. The vast majority of people -- we're talking about well into 90% -- buy their handset from a carrier, not from a phone-maker, even one with as much pull as Google. If your carrier doesn't have a particular phone, why not just get another pretty good alternative instead?


The Pixel 3's camera is so, so good.

Angela Lang/CNET

The rumored Google Pixel 3A is said to come to T-Mobile as well as Verizon, which, if true, will put the Pixel in front of more buyers. (T-Mobile is also trying to mute Verizon's thunder with its #GetOutofTheRed campaign.) 

Exiting an exclusivity contract with AT&T on the very first iPhone helped Apple create the boom that made its smartphone one of the most iconic, sought-after phones in the world. Google can only hope that expanding into T-Mobile would do the same.

For Google's sake, I hope the Pixel's rumored carrier parade won't stop there.

Verizon said, "We don't comment on future contracts nor would we comment on sales." Google did not comment.

Originally published May 1 at 4 a.m. PT.