Why Your Next Pixel Might Have Google Silicon

Google see, Google do

Key Takeaways

  • At least one GS101-based Pixel phone will go on sale this fall.
  • Google’s chips could one day power Chromebooks.
  • Can Google keep itself from dumping yet another project?
Closeup of a Google Pixel 4a smartphone booting up.

Daniel Romero / Unsplash

Google is getting set to make a custom, in-house-designed chip that will power the Pixel phones, but does it have the sticking power to succeed with "Google Silicon?"

Apple’s hardware dominance in mobile is down to its A-series chips, which power iPhones, iPads, and the Apple TV. Variants are used in the Mac and other Apple products. Meanwhile, the rest of the industry relies on Qualcomm’s SnapDragon chips.

Google’s next Pixel phone will use the Google-designed GS101 "Whitechapel" system on a chip (SoC). But will Google—infamously fickle with its products—be able to stay the course?

"Google Silicon might turn the Pixel into the biggest contender of the iPhone," Caroline Lee, co-founder of Cocosign, told Lifewire via email.

"The subsequent pixel phone could utilize a Google-made chip. However, it is not transparent from the report if the chip would be modified after top-notch processors, like Snapdragon 888 or will stay closer to the Pixel 5’s Snapdragon 765."

Why Bother, Google?

There are two reasons that Apple Silicon is so far ahead of the rest of the industry. One is that the chips are just plain good. The other is that Apple can design the hardware and software to work together.

Does the camera app need to make trillions of calculations per second to do its AI magic? No problem. Just build that directly into the chip. Want all-day battery life in a laptop that’s as powerful as a Mac Pro? Optimize everything!

Pixel 5 Charger

 Lifewire / Andrew Hayward

Other phone makers all have to make do with what Qualcomm sells them. If Google makes its own SoC, it can optimize its hardware to match the needs of its software, and vice versa. It will also allow Google to sit above the commoditized market of SnapDragon phones.

According to news site 9to5Google, the first of these GS101 phones will ship this fall. Codenamed Raven and Oriole, two models will be released, one of which will likely be the Pixel 6. It’s also possible that Google will continue to use SnapDragon chips in other phones.

Sticking Power

With a first launch as early as this fall, clearly, Google has been working on this SoC for a while. Apple purchased chip-design house PA Semi back in 2008 but had considered acquiring it since 2005, and Wikipedia mentions rumors that the two companies already shared a relationship.

But Google doesn’t have the sticking power of Apple. Hardware or software, Google has a habit of ditching products that don’t work out right away—or even those that do.

Google has never seemed particularly driven to make the Pixel a success. It’s an odd product, beginning as a kind of hardware reference model to show the world what Google thought an Android phone should be like.

"Google Silicon might turn the Pixel into the biggest contender of the iPhone."

Remember, Google already controls the Android operating system. Adding custom silicon signals that Google is taking the phone business seriously. In part, it’s just good sense to have control of your own destiny. But there’s more.

One advantage we’ve already mentioned: If Google controls the hardware and the software, it can—in theory—surge ahead of the competition. The Pixel will no longer be just another Android phone.

Google must also have its eye on the Chromebook, which also runs on Snapdragon processors.

Google’s core ad business is being squeezed by Apple’s increasingly secure privacy revisions. At the same time, it pays billions of dollars to Apple each year to have Google set as the default search engine in Safari. That’s an uncomfortable situation.

Controlling hardware and software means that Google can harvest as much of its users’ data as it wants, as well as potentially offering some relief from its reliance on Apple products.

Who’s Next?

Google, Apple... Will anyone else start designing their own chips?

Macro of a silicon wafer, each square is a chip with microscopic transistors and circuits.

Laura Ockel / Unsplash

"This step may definitely make other phone manufacturers think of custom CPU creation," says Lee.

"Samsung could be the next in line to try this idea on another level—they have [the Exynos mobile processor] already. However, it will still take a lot of time for other companies to adopt this practice."

Most non-Apple smartphones run on Android, and one might argue that if a company can’t be bothered to write its own OS, it’s unlikely to bother with its own chips. After all, the main advantage of designing your own silicon is that it can integrate tightly with your software.

And there may be another twist. Who’s to say that Google won’t license its chip designs to other Android phone makers? That would certainly be one way to close the gap between iOS and Android and ensure Google’s privacy-free future.

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