The launch of Google's long-rumored Pixel 4a smartphone is starting to feel like a desert mirage. Just when you think you're almost there, you look up and it's now further away on the horizon.
Google's follow-up to last year's successful Pixel 3a had been expected to be unveiled at Google's annual developer conference in May, but that event was scrapped due to restrictions on large gatherings in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak. Some rumors pointed to a potential unveiling of the Pixel 4a in early June, about the same time Google was going to unveil its Android 11 beta. But that version of Android 11 is here and the Pixel 4a isn't, so now we're looking at a July launch for the lower-cost Pixel.
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Or could it be even later? That's what phone leaker Jon Prosser suggested over the weekend when he reported that the Pixel 4a may not arrive until October. In this scenario, the Pixel 5 launch — originally slated for the fall — would be pushed back as well.
This is bad news if you've been waiting for a low-cost Android device that takes flagship-quality pictures. But it'd be an even worse development for Google, which doesn't enjoy a big slice of the smartphone market.
According to Counterpoint Research, Apple accounted for 46% of U.S. smartphone shipments during the first quarter of 2020, followed by Samsung with 32%. Google found itself lumped in with "Other," in which multiple phone makers accounted for 8% of shipments. (LG and Lenovo make up the remaining 14%.)
As much success as the Pixel 3a enjoyed in 2019, if Google doesn't come up with a follow-up soon, it could become a case of "out of sight, out of mind" for consumers who have plenty of other options when it comes to snapping up phones.
Why the rumored Pixel 4a delay?
Amid all the rumors that the Pixel 4a's release is getting pushed back, there's never been a definitive explanation for why the launch hasn't happened yet. The Pixel 4a certainly exists — we wouldn't have so many details of its features and specs if it were just the figment of a rumor monger's imagination. There haven't been any reports of production delays akin to the rumored setbacks Apple is facing with the iPhone 12.
Where’s Pixel 4a?Here’s an update:AGAIN, it seems Google has delayed Pixel 4a 🤦🏼♂️Announcement still happening on July 13But in the system, it’s listed that the “Black” model now launching October 22 😬“Barely Blue” has been removed entirely...I’ll keep you updated. 🤷🏼♂️ https://t.co/UgsWJrYK4U pic.twitter.com/TX209u9JqbJune 13, 2020
Rather, Prosser — who's had most of the scoops on the Pixel 4a's status — attributes the delay to "market conditions," not supply-chain problems. It's unclear what that means, but it's reasonable to assume that Google isn't eager to release a phone while a global pandemic is ongoing and many people are still sheltering in place.
That makes sense. Google's small slice of the smartphone market means it doesn't enjoy the customer loyalty that Apple or Samsung have. Instead, like other phone makers, Google depends on wireless carriers to sell its phones — the Pixel 3a was made available through Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile along with other discount carriers. If people aren't visiting stores, that's going to impact sales.
Why the time is right for the Pixel 4a
But in another respect, low-cost phones — the Pixel 4a is expected to cost $349 — seem as if they're made for this moment. While the costliest part of the coronavirus pandemic has been on human life, there have been economic repercussions, too.
With the economy struggling to rebound after months of shutdowns, most of us are watching what we spend. A $1,000 flagship phone may not seem like a sensible purchase in this climate, but a sub-$400 phone that can deliver flagship-style features is another matter altogether.
Apple seems to have capitalized on the moment with a $399 iPhone SE that's gotten rave reviews. (We'll need to wait until Apple announces quarterly earnings next month to see just how successful the phone has been.)
Likewise, Motorola rolled out a financial quarter's worth of budget phones, ranging in price from the $149 Moto E to the $299 Moto G Stylus. These phones aren't as polished as the iPhone SE, but they deliver some pretty impressive features — like the Moto G Power's epic battery life — at sub-$300 prices. Even Samsung has a decent budget offering with the $399 Galaxy A51.
That's a lot of options for people who don't want to spend a lot of money on their next phone, whether they're open to buying an iPhone or prefer to stick to one of the best Android phones. The longer Google sits on the Pixel 4a, the greater the risk that it winds up missing this moment.
After all, Google is not exactly a household name when it comes to handsets. (Software, sure; phones, not so much.) As good a camera phone as the Pixel 3a proved to be, people aren't likely to wait around until the fall for a promised sequel. They'll shrug and take their money elsewhere.
Pixel 4a outlook
Mid-range phones like the Pixel 4a also enjoy a limited window, the period of time when their less-than-high-end specs seem like a good trade-off for the money. The window closes when you start feeling like you're getting shortchanged.
The budget Pixel phone that seems like a bargain hunter's dream in the summer might seem like an underpowered device come the fall. That will be especially likely if the Pixel 4a goes with the Snapdragon 730 system-on-chip, as is currently rumored, and other phones adopt the more powerful (and 5G-ready) Snapdragon 765 and 768G chipsets.
Google's saving grace may be that the Pixel's software, not hardware, is the star of the show. The Pixel 3a's big appeal was its ability to recreate the photographic skills of more costly Google flagships (2018's Pixel 3, at the time). If the Pixel 4a can do the same, all will be forgiven with its much-delayed launch — although the further we get from the Pixel 4's October 2019 debut, the less impressive that skill will be.
The Pixel 4a could still show up sooner rather than later. But if Google errs on the side of later, the chance to repeat one of its few smartphone successes could be squandered.
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Philip Michaels is a Managing Editor at Tom's Guide. He's been covering personal technology since 1999 and was in the building when Steve Jobs showed off the iPhone for the first time. He's been evaluating smartphones since that first iPhone debuted in 2007, and he's been following phone carriers and smartphone plans since 2015. He has strong opinions about Apple, the Oakland Athletics, old movies and proper butchery techniques. Follow him at @PhilipMichaels.