How the Pixel 4 epitomizes Google’s hardware gamble

Allow me to play Mr. Obvious for a moment: The Pixel 4 is a phone. That much is plainly apparent — right?

Hang on, though, because there’s a twist: This week’s Google event, at which the Pixel 4 was officially launched, wasn’t really about phones. It wasn’t about laptops, either. At its core, it wasn’t about any hardware, in fact, despite being a “hardware event” in every outward sense.

Sure, the physical products may have taken center stage, but those gadgets are ultimately all just vessels for what Google’s really trying to sell us. This week’s event was actually all about the Google ecosystem — and, more specifically, the Google Assistant that serves as the nucleus of almost everything Google introduced.

The Pixel 4, more than any product before it, is the embodiment of that philosophy. And by looking beyond its surface and thinking carefully about what the product represents, we can see the sharpest picture yet of what Google’s trying to achieve.

Google’s hardware-hawking genesis

Before we get into the Pixel 4 specifics, we need to back up and rewind for a moment — all the way back to this same week in 2016, when Google launched its first self-made Pixel phone. Back then, Google hardware chief Rick Osterloh made one thing clear: The reason for all these new products, for this whole new hardware-making adventure, was that the company needed to claim control over how its various services were being presented. That was particularly true for Assistant, the new virtual helper Google would launch on that very same day.

Android phone-makers, y’see, were increasingly interfering with Google’s vision for the software by mucking up the interface, adding in their own second-rate services, and keeping Google’s real money-makers — the keys to the company’s long-term success — from shining as effectively as they could. And with Assistant coming into the picture, Google needed a way to counter that problem without clamping down too tightly on the manufacturer-friendly flexibility that made Android what it is.