Opinion: Google, HTC, LG, Too Many Chefs In Pixel 2 Kitchen

Google confirmed it's launching the Pixel 2 and Pixel XL 2 on October 4th, and with the rumor mill now in full swing, it seems the company's 2017 flagship duo will actually be produced by separate manufacturers, with industry insiders claiming that the smaller device codenamed "Walleye" is made by HTC, whereas the larger "Taimen" is supposedly LG's doing. While Google is still looking to avoid in-house production of two contemporary smartphones aimed at the mass market for a number of valid reasons, the question that naturally imposes itself in regards to the Pixel 2 series is - is Google's smartphone project becoming too crowded?

Google has been experimenting with the idea of (kind of) making its own smartphone for the better part of the last decade, with its first effort to do so having debuted in 2010 in collaboration with HTC. Since then, the company went on to work with Samsung, LG, Motorola (after selling it to Lenovo), and Huawei, releasing more than half a dozen handsets over five years, in addition to working on tablets and media players with some of the aforementioned companies, as well as ASUS. Google took that experience and applied it to the original Pixel smartphone lineup last year and while it's relatively evident that the firm learned a great amount over the years, one factor of its Android-powered device projects always remained consistent - its decision to settle on a single hardware partner.

The exact scope of the role HTC played in the creation of the Pixel series is still unclear, though the firm was apparently closer to being an original design manufacturer than an original equipment one, with Google reportedly taking the reigns of the project instead of just focusing on the software experience like it did with Nexus devices. The situation isn't exactly the same this year and that's not even accounting for the fact that Google is now all but confirmed to have added another manufacturer to the equation - LG. Yes, Google already worked with two smartphone makers simultaneously two years ago when it introduced the LG-made Nexus 5X and Huawei's Nexus 6P, yet things are significantly different and more confusing this time around even though the Pixel 2 and Pixel XL 2 are technically being produced by separate companies.

According to a wide variety of reports, the smaller Pixel 2 will be equipped with HTC's stereo speakers and Edge Sense technology which entails a pressure-sensitive frame that can recognize when it's squeezed and use that information as a trigger for some other action, whereas it's currently unclear whether the same feature will be part of the Pixel XL 2. Likewise, the HTC-made Pixel 2 almost certainly won't have a headphone jack just like the U11, with the phone being set for an announcement exactly a year after Google made fun of Apple for removing this universally useful port, and there's reportedly a chance that the Pixel XL 2 will follow suit even though both of LG's latest flagships which served as its inspiration have the audio jack. Additionally, the larger device will apparently be relatively bezel-free and utilize an LG Display-made 5.7-inch OLED panel with an 18:9 aspect ratio, hence being somewhat similar to the G6 and the V30. On the other hand, the Pixel 2 will supposedly retain the general aesthetic of the original HTC-made series — including a smaller 16:9 screen — which was in turn reminiscent of the HTC 10 whose look was mostly succeeded by the U11. This radical diversification not only goes against the very concept of a product lineup and even makes keeping up with the two devices confusing but also poses another worrying question - how well will it all work together?

If Google was fully committed to LG with the Pixel 2 series, would its next-generation smartphones come equipped with actual next-generation camera tech? The South Korean phone maker may be struggling to sell phones at the moment, but certainly not because its offerings are lacking in the photography department, with the G6 and the upcoming V30 seemingly offering some of the best mobile imaging setups to date. Yes, single-lens systems can still produce great results even when compared to their more complex alternatives, but the general limitations of such systems are becoming increasingly more obvious as time goes on and Google's decision to stick to this solution seems like more of a compromise than a design choice; a compromise that may have been avoided if its devices were being designed in partnership with just a single company. Instead, half of the firm's premium handset lineup is now set to come with a non-premium design, i.e. giant bezels that seem like they belong on a sub-$150 smartphone and not a device for which Google will likely ask at least $650, not to mention that both handsets will lack a truly contemporary imaging system.

Likewise, if Google opted to completely embrace HTC for the Pixel 2 project, would the Pixel XL 2 feature Edge Sense and front-facing stereo speakers from the Taiwanese company in exchange for losing a bezel-less design? While HTC's technologies may still make their way to the LG-made Pixel XL 2, that's yet to be confirmed, and even if they do, there's no guarantee they'll work well together with the rest of the hardware. As things stand right now, Google is planning on announcing two largely different devices as a single lineup advertised as being produced by one company when it was actually made by three. The highly perplexing composition of the Pixel 2 project is largely unprecedented and risky because it's not like Google just commissioned LG and HTC as original design manufacturers; instead, the two are actively working on their devices with Alphabet's subsidiary, reportedly have some overlap in terms of their responsibilities, and will ultimately produce a device each based on designs and technologies from their own R&D units and the other two involved parties. The collaborative nature of the Nexus program was also unconventional for its time, but the Pixel 2 project is apparently on a whole other level of convolutedness, and while the average consumer is far from being required to make sense of it, the end user is also the one who will suffer the most if Google, HTC, and LG aren't able to figure it out either.

Overall, both the Pixel 2 and Pixel XL 2 are set to come with a combination of hardware from two manufacturers with two different product design visions and various problems of their own, all meshed together into a package that's set to run Google's software and — surprise — is actually two packages. If there ever was a smartphone equivalent of a goulash, this certainly sounds like it, and the Pixel 2 lineup also isn't some recipe that Google has been perfecting for years. Instead, it's a product of an extremely experimental collaboration involving two struggling phone makers working together for a year and trying to create two devices which are meant to compete in the extremely saturated high-end smartphone segment that's bound to become even more crowded once Apple's next three offerings hit the market. Not accounting for India, the vast majority of the largest phone markets in the world are losing momentum due to numerous reasons ranging from general saturation to upgrade fatigue, some industry trackers indicate. While this increasingly competitive environment is warranting phone makers to stand out as much as possible, is the best way to do so to just mash two conflicting design philosophies together like Google is seemingly doing with HTC and LG? This argument gains more weight in light of the fact that nothing of what LG and HTC bring to the table is actually unique, not accounting for Edge Sense which you'll probably forget about after using it twice. So, assuming that Google wasn't literally forced to use two hardware partners for the Pixel 2 series, it's not easy to tell why the company is not simply focusing on execution in close collaboration with one of them and has instead opted to convolute the already complicated process of smartphone development even further.

While you could argue that the major differences between the Pixel 2 and Pixel XL 2 stemming from their different manufacturers could be Google's way of pursuing a catch-all strategy, it's not like the company's upcoming series is expected to beat sales records. The original lineup had a clear vision and reportedly did alright for a newcomer to the market, so it's hard to see how exactly is Google hoping to surpass that performance by splitting its product offerings into two barely related devices. It's not like the Pixel 2 and Pixel XL 2 will be marketed to different demographics; Google's own ads for the first two flagships didn't even differentiate between them, having instead promoted "a phone made by Google." Phone. Singular. You had to do some browsing or hit a brick-and-mortar store to find out that there's actually two of them and that you have some choice with your purchase. This time around, there are two manufacturers mashing their inventions into each other's offerings with likely varying degrees of success, and with the result of their efforts being a couple of hybrid devices, one of which will have a squeezing gimmick and no headphone jack, and the other one of which may end up being a slightly smaller V30 with stock Android. Good luck advertising that mash-up as "a phone made by Google."

One of the main features of the Android ecosystem that's simultaneously one of its biggest strengths and most prominent weaknesses is its diversity, with the platform offering plenty of choice in all price ranges in terms of both hardware and software, albeit contracting a severe case of support fragmentation in the process of doing so. Somehow, it seems that Google translated that strategy to the Pixel 2 series, opting to put together two devices by combining inventions from two companies and trying to make the components work together with its vanilla software. The end result of such an attempt could still turn out beautifully, but it could also result in a pair of handsets with no clear vision, a number of proprietary gimmicks, and some obsolete hardware that doesn't warrant a price tag attached to it. Last year, Google said that the Pixel series isn't meant to be a direct successor to the Nexus program and should instead be seen as the company's first serious foray into consumer-grade mobile devices. In light of that declaration, why did Google opt to make the Pixel 2 lineup such an experimental project combining an unprecedented degree of collaboration between two smartphone companies when its ultimate goal is to create a mainstream product that will appeal to the masses? There are many words for describing its decision to fragment the Pixel 2 project with multiple phone makers, but "serious" is hardly at the top of that list.

To be frank, it's still unclear why the Pixel 2 series has two manufacturers, with some insiders previously speculating that Google's original Pixel deal with HTC also warranted it to commission at least one more product from HTC the following year. Another possibility is that Google is sort of throwing the bone to HTC here, with the Internet giant rumored to be close to actually buying HTC's smartphone business. Whatever the case may be and even if both the Pixel 2 and Pixel XL 2 turn out to be the best handsets ever created, it's hard to shake off the feeling that whatever Google unveils on October 4th, it will be underwhelming compared to what the company could have accomplished this year if it had only settled on a single hardware partner and focused on executing the perfect smartphone recipe instead of overpopulating its electronics kitchen with so many big-name chefs.

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About the Author

Dominik Bosnjak

Head Editor
Dominik started at AndroidHeadlines in 2016 and is the Head Editor of the site today. He’s approaching his first full decade in the media industry, with his background being primarily in technology, gaming, and entertainment. These days, his focus is more on the political side of the tech game, as well as data privacy issues, with him looking at both of those through the prism of Android. Contact him at [email protected]