Google hardware chief Rick Osterloh once said he hoped Google would be “selling products in high volumes in five years.” That was three years ago. After disappointing sales of the Pixel 4 and a recent shakeup within the Pixel team’s management, Google’s aspirations to become a major player in the hardware space may have just hit a major setback.
At an all-hands meeting for the Pixel team held prior to the Pixel 4's launch last fall, according to a new report from The Information, Osterloh expressed concerns about the development of Google’s flagship phone, such as its middling battery capacity and “informed staff about his own misgivings.” Going back even further to August 2019, Pixel general manager Mario Queiroz was reportedly moved into a more obscure role within the hardware team before eventually leaving Google for cybersecurity company Palo Alto Networks in January 2020.
But perhaps the biggest blow to the Pixel team came this March when Marc Levoy, distinguished engineer and one of the leaders of the Pixel camera team, quietly left Google—a move which had gone unreported until The Information’s recent story.
Before he started at Google, Levoy was a professor at Stanford, where he worked on a project that would eventually become Google Street View. While he didn’t invent the field, Levoy is also credited with coining the term “computational photography,” which is the process of using algorithms, machine learning, and computer processing to enhance traditional photography. Levoy joined Google in 2014 and moved on to become one of the heads of the Pixel camera team.
One of the Pixel line’s greatest strengths since its launch has been the image quality of its cameras, due in part to features like Google’s HDR+ processing and its low-light Night Sight photo mode. Last year, I had the opportunity to interview Levoy and Pixel camera product manager Isaac Reynolds, and even back then, it was clear the influence Google’s approach to smartphone photography had had on its rival phone makers, including Apple, Samsung, and Huawei.
Features like dedicated night modes have now become standard fare on high-end and mid-range phones, with the tech recently starting to trickle down to budget handsets as well. The same goes for HDR photography, which not too long ago was an optional enhancement, but over the past couple years has become the default photo setting on most phones. From an outsider’s perspective, Levoy leaving seems like a massive loss for the Pixel camera team.
As for Osterloh’s larger criticism about the Pixel line’s design and features, based on rumors that claim the Pixel 5 will come with a chip and specs more in line with a mid-range phone, it appears Google is already working to further differentiate its flagship from more traditional high-end devices.
While Google’s Pixel phone may not have enjoyed the breakout success that Google may have wanted, it’s a bit too early to count the company out yet—even with the recent loss of talented employees. With the success of other Google devices, like the Nest Hub and Google Nest Mini 2, it seems like the company isn’t really struggling when it comes to making its greater portfolio of devices appealing.