Google’s Pixel conundrum and Microsoft’s TikTok conundrum

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Hi everybody. I’m back to writing this newsletter after some time off and somehow, magically, still somewhat refreshed by my week off in the woods of northern California. If you’re a new subscriber, welcome! This is a newsletter about computers and consumer tech.

I’m not going to try to catch you up on everything that happened last week, but the antitrust hearings were the main thing. We have a full story stream of the biggest news here, I suggest you check some of it out.

Since I was only vaguely aware of last week’s goings-on, the things that jumped out to me were a couple funny bits: Amazon clocked Google’s Nest acquisition as having been a bit of a fiasco and Tim Cook forwards along long emails on Sunday evening with just a single “Thoughts?” in the body, truly the mark of a terrifying boss.

This week is going to be a big one. Samsung will announce the Note 20 on Wednesday, Microsoft is in the middle of a Trumpian swamp of dangerous confusion over its desire to acquire part of TikTok, and likely other weirdness is coming. August is no longer a slow news month for consumer tech.

Google Pixel 5, 4A 5G, and 4A

The week kicked off with reviews of the Pixel 4A from Google — here’s mine. The phone is very good and at $350, very inexpensive. The fact that a budget phone can literally take photos of comets and the Milky Way is really something. Using the Pixel 4A made me fall in love with the Pixel’s camera all over again.

And yet, no matter how good the Pixel 4A is, it won’t be a smash hit. Part of that will come down to the pandemic, but a lot of it will come down to marketing. US carriers only want to push 5G phones and the 4A is not 5G. Google’s answer to that conundrum was to just up and say that, well, there are 5G phones coming later this fall.

The conventional wisdom around the Pixel is that it’s in trouble. We’re at or just beyond the self-imposed deadline Google put on itself to see tangible success in the phone hardware business and it’s fair to say it hasn’t happened — at least not at the scale you’d expect from a company as big as Google.

I think it’s probably too much to ask of the Pixel 5 to solve that problem — especially since signs currently point to it not being a take-on-the-best flagship. That doesn’t mean we should ignore it nor that it won’t be good: we should pay attention to what Google thinks an Android phone should be, and often it gets a lot of things right when it does.

Here’s where I see it these days: the Pixel is the Nexus by another name. Google’s old Nexus program made different phones with different manufacturers from year to year, but Nexus phones were never expected to sell in huge numbers. Instead, the Nexus was a showcase for new technologies for Android and a north star for what Google hoped would be trends for the hardware that ran it.

Until and unless Google can show quite a bit more ambition than it has to date, I think that’s the right way to think about the Pixel line. They’re Nexus phones that happened to be made by Google. Expecting them to be anything more is a recipe for disappointment.

That said, if you want an Android phone that costs less than four or five hundred dollars, I think the choice comes down to the OnePlus Nord and the Pixel 4A — and since the Nord doesn’t support the right LTE bands in the US, the decision is even easier.

Google announces Pixel 5, Pixel 4A 5G, and Pixel 4A all at once.

Google Pixel 4A review: back to basics for $349.

Google’s live-captioning feature will soon work with voice and video calls on Pixel phones.

Google getting into other businesses

Google Pay will support mobile checking accounts starting next year. I still think this is a wholly unnecessary thing for Google to get into. I sincerely hope that these “digital bank accounts through Google Pay” are not locked down to Google Pay should a customer want to convert it to a direct relationship with the bank.

Google invests in ADT, will integrate its Nest devices into smart home business. Mostly, I’m just relieved that Google isn’t buying ADT outright. Jon Porter explains the motivations behind the $450 million investment, which gives Google 6.6 percent and, most importantly, the chance for exclusivity:

Eventually, however, Google says its Nest devices will become the “cornerstone” of ADT’s smart home offering. The search giant says that its technology will mean fewer false alarms, better event detection, and more helpful notifications for ADT’s customers. Google says that ADT customers will also get access to Nest Aware, its subscription service that offers intelligent alerts and 30 days of event history recording.

Microsoft, TikTok, and Trump

It is, as I said above, an absolute fiasco. The basics are that Microsoft was thinking of buying some parts of TikTok (in a weird list of regions that includes the US but not the UK). Then negotiations got messy when President Trump tweeted about banning the app. Then Microsoft put out an absolutely baffling blog post that was clearly designed to placate the Trump administration. (Emphasis mine below)

Microsoft fully appreciates the importance of addressing the President’s concerns. It is committed to acquiring TikTok subject to a complete security review and providing proper economic benefits to the United States, including the United States Treasury.


Adi Robertson has a good Twitter thread showing just how bad all of this could be if it were to become more real than just Trump tweets.

Here are some scary questions. Do we want the government this involved in a business deal? Do we want tech titans — in whom we have invested a lot of trust whether we like it or not because they run everything — pandering to specific administrations in this way? Do we want the already fraught relations between the US and China made even more complicated by these shenanigans? Do we want TikTok to continue to operate in such a way that our data could be used by the Chinese government and/or opaque algorithms could be limiting or changing speech? Is there even a mechanism for banning TikTok in the US that follows the rule of law — aka a method that’s, you know, legal?

My sincere hope is that things settle down and most of those questions end up being rhetorical. That would mean that Microsoft will either buy parts of TikTok cleanly or the parts outside China will get spun out in some other fashion. Either way you’re probably wondering why Microsoft would want TikTok in the first place. Tom Warren runs down all the potential benefits.

Oh, one more thing, just to further complicate matters: Snapchat is adding a TikTok-style music feature. Jacob Kastrenakes:

For now, it sounds like there won’t be a feed of videos set to music, and there won’t be a way to see other videos featuring the same song — two features key to TikTok. A Snap spokesperson emphasized that it’s designed for sharing music with your “real friends.” That said, Snap knows that TikTok is the target here. In an email detailing the new feature, Snap said that, “based on publicly available data,” its app “reaches more people in the U.S. than Twitter and TikTok combined.”

Some gaming news

This is how Xbox games are getting touch controls for xCloud. This looks quite well thought through.

Microsoft reveals redesigned, much faster Xbox store. One thing nobody ever seems to learn from Amazon: any millisecond slow-down in the buying process can and will result in lost sales. Microsoft doesn’t deserve praise for making its store “more than twice as fast as before,” it needs to ask itself why it let the old store be so slow in the first place.

PlayStation 5 will support PS4 controllers, but only for playing PS4 games.

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