At this point in 2020, one thing feels quite clear: Google’s phone strategy is a bit of a mess. I’m hoping October rolls around and Google announces their phones and all this makes sense, but I don’t feel that will be the case at this point. As it stands, Google looks likely to announce 3 different phones all with mid-range internals. While I completely agree that Google is most competitive in the affordable phone space, I don’t fully understand how they can keep making phones if they completely abandon the flagship space, either.
Having said that, if a recent report is to be believed, I am more understanding than I was about this situation just a week or so ago. According to this report, Qualcomm is set to increase the price of its high-end chipset – the upcoming Snapdragon 875 – by a whopping $100 for manufacturers. $100!! That means phone makers would go from paying around $150 per chip for the current-gen Snapdragon 865 to $250 for the 875. Flagship phone prices are already getting out of hand with $1000+ being normal, so this is only set to make things far, far worse.
With that in mind, I have to concede that Google is likely on the right path right now by opting to exit the flagship phone space for the time being. Phone makers are already on tight budgets with razor-thin margins as it stands, so such a steep price increase on the chips that basically everyone uses and expects at this point is going to be very volatile for Android phone makers across the board.
Let’s not forget that all of this is occurring while Apple is pushing towards lower prices for their hardware, too. Apple is in a unique spot as they manufacture their own silicon and can better dictate pricing and support windows for their own devices. For reference, the 6 year old iPhone 6s will be getting iOS 14 this fall when it launches and to put that into perspective, that would mean the Samsung Galaxy S6 should also be getting Android 11. It isn’t. It is stuck on Android 7, and this brings up an equally-troubling scenario for Android phone makers. With Qualcomm dropping support for their chips in roughly two-year cycles, that $1000+ phone you just bought is only good for a couple years versus the potential 5+ years you get with a similarly-priced iPhone. See the problem, here?
Google making custom silicon could benefit more than just them
With all this in place, it seems quite clear that the path forward for Google and its Pixel phones (and potentially other hardware, too) is to get a strategy in place where they control the chips inside those devices. Rumors have been swirling for quite some time that Google has been hard at work on this, and I’m very hopeful that is the case. When you stop and think about all the upsides to Google controlling the silicon in their hardware, it is easy to see why this is a space they need to move into as fast as possible.
While we don’t know for certain that Google’s own chips will ever become a reality, there’s more reason than ever to believe that it is well within the realm of possibility. Given the recent availability of ARM’s Cortex-X program, creating custom chipsets is becoming easier than it has ever been before. This new program allows hardware manufactures to more-easily align custom silicon to meet their hardware needs. In a similar way to what Apple does with its A-series chips, this new Cortex-X program will allow smaller hardware companies to compete with more vertically-integrated processor solutions like what Apple currently employs.
Assuming the need is in place for Google to make this move and the capability is equally real, it is fair to assume that the rumors swirling around custom Google-made ARM chips isn’t that far-fetched. There’s a need and a path forward: Google just needs to take it. If they do, there are quite a few great outcomes that could happen as a result.
Better, more-affordable phones
The obvious win for Google will be in terms of their Pixel phone strategy. Just like Apple, Google will have the ability to align its software and hardware strategies in making better Android phones. Cost will come down because there would be no reliance on Qualcomm and performance would increase as Google could craft processors to better perform in light of whatever software changes they want to make in the future.
Longer support windows
This leads to the other obvious deficiency with Android devices: shelf life. As we stated before, iOS 14 is about to arrive on the 5-year-old iPhone 6s this fall and that sort of long-term support is simply not an option right now for Android devices with Qualcomm chips inside. If Google were to make its own processors, however, they could dictate how long updates to that chip are viable and extend the long-term value of their phones far past what they are capable of right now. $1000 phones that can be kept for 4-5 years don’t feel like quite as crazy of an investment for most users.
That could perhaps lead to other phone manufacturers paying Google to use that same silicon. If Google comes out with lower-priced phones that perform better and last longer than the competition, that same competition will either have to adapt or borrow from Google. With the nature of Android and it being a platform Google wants to see succeed, it wouldn’t be out of character for them to allow other manufacturers to pay for and use their own, custom processors. Again, if it could bring down the prices for Android phones and extend the update windows for everyone, it would be a net win for Google and Android both.
Finally, all of this could also trickle down to benefit Chromebooks, too. If Google can create an ARM chipset that works well on phones, they could do the same for Chrome OS. Imagine a fast, affordable SoC built entirely from the ground up just for Chromebooks. Imagine how fast and smooth it would work while remaining affordable and how perfectly integrated the entire experience could be. With Apple now moving in this direction with MacOS, I don’t think we’re too far out from seeing Google counter with in-house chips built with Chrome OS in mind.
Then, if Google sees fit, it could allow for this chipset to be used across the Chrome OS ecosystem and make room for all interested manufacturing partners to get on board and begin making devices using the same silicon. The ramifications could be substantial, and I think they are well worth Google investing in this way.
For right now, however, it is all a ‘what if’ sort of scenario. The reasons for Google to do this are clear. The avenues are there, too. And resources? This is Google we’re talking about. The writing on the wall is clear and in focus, but the path forward isn’t just yet. There’s honestly no digging we can do to verify any movement in this direction from Google, but it is more certain than it has ever been that something needs to happen soon if they intend on keeping the flagship ecosystem of Android phones afloat. As Android phones continue to balloon price and Apple’s phones keep trending downward, the time to move is now. Let’s hope they do so.