It’s been a little more than three weeks since Google took the wraps off the Pixel 6a. And yet, we’re still closer to that event than we are to the moment when Google’s budget phone actually goes on sale.
Introduced on May 11, the Pixel 6a is Google’s latest $449 phone, giving you many of the features of the Pixel flagship at a more affordable price. Those features include the same Tensor chip that powers the Pixel 6 lineup as well as the distinctive design of last fall’s flagship release.
Given Google’s reputation for delivering high-quality photography with its lower-cost A Series phones, you’d imagine people are understandably eager to see if the Pixel 6a can keep up with the best camera phones as well as its predecessor could. But even though we’ve known officially about the Pixel 6a for weeks, we’re still playing the waiting game for its launch: pre-orders for the new phone don’t begin until July 21. The Pixel 6a doesn’t actually land in stores stores until July 28.
That’s an unusually long wait, to put it mildly. Apple, for example typically takes 10 days between unveiling one of its new iPhones and putting the device on sale. It took Samsung roughly two weeks after announcing this year’s Galaxy S22 flagship devices to put the phones on sale. Even Google normally doesn’t take this long — the Pixel 5a was announced on August 17 last year and hit stores nine days later.
So what’s the reason for the hold-up on the Pixel 6a? And does it bode ill for the phone’s prospects among smartphone shoppers?
There’s no official answer for the first question. Google hasn’t told us why we have to wait until July. However, in the build-up to the Pixel 6a’s unveiling, rumors suggested a possible delay between Google’s launch event and the arrival of the phone due to production and supply chain issues. There’s still a shortage of chips and other parts going on, creating production delays, and it’s likely Google got caught up in that with the Pixel 6a.
Then again, Google’s position in the smartphone market isn’t necessarily hampered by the lengthy wait for the Pixel 6a’s launch date. “This underscores the fact that they’re not a hardware/phone company,” said Tuong Nguyen, a senior principal analyst at Gartner. “As in, they’re not directly trying to compete against most other phone vendors.”
Avi Greengart, lead analyst for Techsponential, puts it another way — Google’s smartphone efforts are less about market share and more about “platform enablement” for Android: “This often means that rather than try to maintain secrecy up until a splashy launch that garners the most attention and drives immediate purchases, Google releases information early to attract developers and signal to Android partners where it would like the market to go. Google certainly wants to make money on its phones (and watches, tablets, and IoT devices), but it primarily monetizes user data and attention.”
For that reason, announcing the Pixel 6a at the Google I/O developers conference — when the company has its developers’ undivided attention — makes perfect sense, even if it means the smartphone won’t be ready to ship until July. And as Greengart noted, that’s actually the shortest wait of any device to make an appearance at I/O this year. Google also showed off the Pixel 7 and a Pixel tablet, and those devices won’t be ready until this fall and next year, respectively.
Google prioritizing showing what Android phones are capable over device sales certainly explains away one of the biggest dilemmas that results from a delay between announcing a phone and actually launching it — no one buys your hardware in the interim.
The Pixel 5a remains on the market at present and we considered it one of the best cheap phones around prior to last month’s I/O. But with the Pixel 6 on its way, it’s hard to recommend anyone buy the older Google phone since the newer one figures to be so much better. In the meantime, similarly priced phones like the Galaxy A53 are poised to siphon off sales that might have gone to Google’s new model.
Instead, Google has other challenges awaiting it with the Pixel 6a. “The challenge for Google — and any smartphone provider — is to deliver technology that will significantly change the current smartphone experience,” said Nguyen, adding that Google’s developer conference provided some hints of that with AR-driven search improvements and speech-to-speech translation happening entirely on devices.
“The groundwork is being laid for this transformational change, but we’re not at the tipping point, yet,” he said.