Google’s Pixel 4 has created a furore on the internet because it is not launching in India. This comes after the Pixel line made India a launchpad over the last three years. So what went wrong? Is the Pixel doing so badly in India that Google doesn’t care to launch its flagship phone or is it because of the complications caused by the Soli Radar system inside the phone? The answer is more nuanced.
Google’s Face Unlock system on Pixel 4 is illegal in India
Google’s new Face Unlock system in Pixel 4 uses a combination of a dot projector, infrared scanners, a front camera for facial recognition like the iPhone. In fact, the system on the iPhone is more sophisticated but save for one piece of hardware which Google has added which makes the face unlock on the Pixel 4 the fastest and according to Google, very secure. It is a miniaturised radar which was developed by Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) group as a part of Project Soli. But the heart of the problem is this very Soli based radar which is illegal in India.
Why Google’s ATAP Group is an important component in this
Google’s ATAP group has people has former US Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) personnel working in it. It is an advanced group which was once led by former DRDO director Regina Dugan when the group was inherited from Motorola. It works on military-grade research projects that can be brought to consumers. The Soli demo first came out in 2015 and is basically a military-grade technology that’s being brought to phones in a miniaturised form for the first time.
What is this Soli radar and what does it do
The Soli radar chip can sense hand movements and gestures which enables one of the core new features of the Pixel 4 called motion sense. It works in a way that it can detect human motions at various scales using electromagnetic waves and Google’s custom machine learning algorithms which collect and collate the RAW data on the device allowing people to snooze alarms by waving.
For Face Unlock, it can detect your presence and the fact that you’re reaching out for the phone and preempt the face unlock process using geospatial awareness. This is what makes it the fastest facial recognition system over even Apple’s Face ID. And as this is not dependent on cameras, it is also more power-efficient.
What makes it illegal in India
The Soli Radar uses a 60GHz mmWAV frequency band. According to the TRAI consultation paper for “Proliferation of Broadband through public Wi-Fi networks” the DoT has been recommended to make this band available for commercial use as in developed markets there is good device ecosystem for such bands. It has also been suggested that this band be opened up for use by telecom operators, but neither has happened so far. So to launch a device which uses this spectrum is illegal in India. Off the record, military personnel have also said that some defence forces use the spectrum in a very limited way.
Could Google launch the Pixel 4 without out the Soli chip-enabled
Now many argue that even Apple launched the Apple Watch Series 4 without its ECG function enabled in India. Similarly, Google could just turn off the Soli radar in the Pixel 4 in India — in fact, they are doing that at launch in Japan and Australia where this same 60GHz mmWAV frequency is not available. However, those are more mature markets and chances are they will get regulatory approval there to use this frequency for the phone. Even if that’s not the case, adapting the face unlock system to work with the gyroscope and accelerometer instead of the radar would be a herculean engineering feat for a product that’s not operating at scale like the way the Apple Watch does for Apple. Lobbying with regulators and reengineering the product for certain markets would be too much work for something that’s more like a showcase of technology. It would also defeat the point of the showcase.
India is also the hardest market for a smartphone manufacturer
If you look at the Pixel 4 simply based on its specs, it is the soli radar and the motion sense technology that makes it unique and interesting because from a hardware point of view it is a pretty boring phone which gets outflanked easily by phones that cost half as much. It has the Snapdragon 855 chip with 6GB RAM, dual cameras on the back, a smallish battery and a forehead in an era of full-screen displays. A phone like the OnePlus 7T alone would have it for breakfast as it offers more cameras, a screen without any borders, more RAM, a bigger battery and the latest Snapdragon 855+ processor.
Add to the fact that Pixel 4 would’ve costed around Rs 70,000 adjusted for taxes and it isn’t a brand as well known as OnePlus, Samsung or Apple, this phone would’ve been dead on arrival without the “Soli” radar. In markets like Australia and Japan, Google can still make a bet as phones like OnePlus and Xiaomi aren’t as popular. Specs don’t define the success of a product in developed markets but sure do in India.
Pixel 3A probably also showed Google its own niche for India
Like the Pixel 3A, chances are there will be a Pixel 4A. Pixel 3A did something weird and impressive even though it was quite overpriced in India. It reduced the entry point to its headlining feature which was its camera. So people who craved the Google brand and wanted the Pixel camera — they could get the Pixel 3A over a phone like the OnePlus 7. Google probably is thinking on similar lines for a future Pixel as well as its statement has indicated which states, “ We decided not to make Pixel 4 available in India. We remain committed to our current Pixel phones and look forward to bringing future Pixel devices to India.”
Did Google make a mistake while developing the Pixel 4
Yes, the chances are very high that Google made a mistake while developing the Pixel 4 as this soli radar technology was developed by its ATAP unit which wouldn’t have had the foresight a typical smartphone product team would’ve had about global radar regulatory issues. Google has shown this kind of disdain numerous times while developing products. Chances are Google’s team only realised that the soli radar wouldn’t be allowed in many markets after the phone was final. Multiple reports state that they only got approval to launch the phone in the US recently and still in markets like Australia and Japan, the motion sense feature is disabled.