Smartphone

Google aims to double smartphone output with new Pixel 6

TAIPEI — Google has asked suppliers to produce more than 7 million of its upcoming Pixel 6 smartphones — double its entire phone shipments last year — as the U.S. software giant attempts to grab market share from Huawei Technologies and ride a post-pandemic recovery in demand.

Sources told Nikkei Asia that Google is attempting to capitalize on its position as the only U.S. maker of smartphones running on the Android operating system. The company has also asked suppliers to build over 5 million of its budget Pixel 5A phones unveiled this spring, the sources said. Its total smartphone shipments last year came to just 3.7 million, according to IDC.

Sources say this is the most aggressive move yet by Google to ramp up its smartphone output. It also marks a sharp turnaround from last year, when the company was forced to scale back production due to disruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Google has been telling suppliers since earlier this year that its position as the only U.S. maker of Android smartphones will help it boost business at home, in Europe and Japan, people briefed on the matter said. The company is specifically aiming to snag market share from Apple, Samsung and Xiaomi — the world’s top three smartphone makers — who have all gained at Huawei’s expense. 

Huawei’s smartphones and other devices ran on Google’s Android OS before Washington sharply curtailed the Chinese tech company’s access to American technology due to national security concerns. Most other leading smartphone makers, including Samsung, Xiaomi and Oppo, use Android as their standard OS. 

Google has high hopes for the Pixel 6 as it is the first smartphone powered by its in-house mobile processor, Tensor, a key differentiator that could enable the company to stand out amid intensifying competition.

Prior to the U.S. clampdown, Huawei relied on a similar strategy to take on Apple and Samsung, who also design their own mobile chips for their flagship smartphones. Google’s Tensor is produced by Samsung Electronics using its leading 5-nanometer chip production technology, sources said.

The U.S. software and search engine giant has been pushing forward with its hardware ambitions over the past several years. In 2018, it completed a $1.1 billion deal to acquire part of Taiwanese smartphone maker HTC’s smartphone division and its 2,000 employees engaged in research and development to boost its handset capability. Google now has a hardware team of more 4,000 employees in Taiwan, its largest hardware development base outside the U.S.

Apart from smartphones, Google is working on a new generation of the Pixelbook notebook computer that runs on Google’s ChromeOS, two people familiar with the matter said. The company is also developing computer chips to eventually power its Chromebook laptops. 

Production of the Pixel 6 will remain in China, after the pandemic disrupted Google’s plans to move most of its smartphone output to northern Vietnam, Nikkei Asia reported earlier. The affordable Pixel 5A is already made in the Southeast Asian country.

Google’s ramped-up production goals come as supply chains face mounting challenges from the ongoing global chip and component shortages. Suppliers in China are also scrambling to deal with unexpected electricity suspensions.

Pixel phone production has not yet been meaningfully impacted, though technical issues related to waterproofing technology have weighed on the efficiency of phone assembly, sources familiar with the matter told Nikkei Asia. Most suppliers are also cautious on whether Google’s ambitious goal to expand its smartphone business will actually materialize as production orders are subject to change depending on market response, they said.

“It’s likely Google has good market opportunities in Western markets like Europe and the U.S. that are more sensitive to data privacy and care a lot about national security implications associated with electronic devices,” Joey Yen, a tech analyst with research company IDC, told Nikkei Asia. “Google wants to bet big on its hardware because it wants to lock in more users and have direct interaction with them as that could give it better data analytics for its future services.”

Sean Lin, an analyst with Digitimes Research, described Google’s move to use its own mobile processor rather than Qualcomm’s as a “breakthrough and adventure” for the company. “It means Google is heading down Apple’s path of using its own processor together with its own operating system,” Lin told Nikkei Asia. “It will be an adventure, as there will be a lot of integration work to do.”

This could be the moment, he added, when Google’s smartphone shipments start to take off, after being limited to a few million units in the past few years.

“With its own mobile processors and new hardware ambition, we will see whether Google promotes its hardware products in more sale channels and whether the market will react positively,” Lin said.

Google said it did not have any comment on specific production volumes, but pointed to past statements describing the technical capabilities of the new Tensor mobile processor.