When Google launched its first Pixel phone, we all assumed it would be the iPhone’s biggest competitor. It didn’t quite work out that way. The Pixel has yet to break out among Android’s biggest selling phones and launches have been plagued with numerous bugs and issues.
That might change with the upcoming Pixel 6. A new report from 9to5Google says that the Pixel 6 will use Google’s first system-on-chip, codenamed “GS101” Whitechapel. The Pixel would then be one of the only U.S. Android phones to ship without a Qualcomm Snapdragon processor. The report says Google has “assistance” from Samsung to make the chip and it could share some common features. Samsung manufactured several of Apple’s earlier A-series chips before Apple shifted to TSMC.
It’s not clear from the report whether the chip would be modeled after higher-end processors such as the Snapdragon 888 or stay closer to the mid-range like the Pixel 5’s Snapdragon 765.
Overseas phones from Samsung use its own Exynos chips, but Qualcomm largely has a monopoly on phones in the U.S. A homegrown chip from Google would be a major break and could lead to a renaissance for the Pixel, which has struggled to gain traction. Apple has been making its own smartphone chips since the iPhone 4 and it gives its handsets a huge speed and power efficiency advantage over Android phones.
This wouldn’t be Google’s first crack at a smartphone chip. It already makes a Tensor Processing Unit for AI cloud-based tasks as well as a smartphone version called the Pixel Neural Core. It also made an ISP called Pixel Visual Core for the Pixel 2 and Pixel 3, but those tasks are now handled by the PNC. The Pixel 4 also included motion-sensing made possible by the Soli chip but was discontinued on the Pixel 5. And all Pixel phones since the Pixel 3 include a Titan M security chip for storing biometrics and other sensitive data.
Bringing iOS to Android (and maybe PCs)
However, a system-on-chip would be an entirely different animal. More importantly, a Google chip would give the iPhone its first true competitor that controls the “whole stack.” Google already makes one of the best cameras you can get in a smartphone, and recently it has begun siphoning features from Android to give the Pixel a degree of exclusivity. So by controlling the processor, hardware, and OS (like Apple) Google could create one of the best phones to run Android. There’s a lot more that goes into it, of course, but the Pixel would instantly become the closest Android phone to an iPhone and make the competition between the two companies much more contentious.
The biggest change could be to updates. As it stands, Google only promises three years of Android version and security updates, lower even than Samsung (four years). And while Apple doesn’t technically guarantee a length of time that you’ll receive iOS updates when you purchase an iPhone, every model since the iPhone 4 has gotten at least five years of updates. With a custom chip, buying a Google phone should carry the same guarantee as an iPhone—basically that you’ll get updates as long as you own your phone. By controlling the guts and the OS, the Pixel phone should be a gold standard for Android phone updates and eliminate one of the major reasons to buy an iPhone.
The report also says the chip could power some Chromebooks as well, similar to Apple’s M1 chip for Macs. Google’s previous Chromebook efforts have used a range of processors from Intel—that would be another blow to the chipmaker, which has taken to bashing the MacBook following Apple’s split. With simpatico between chips, Google could create a similar system to the Mac and iPhone, with apps that run well on both systems, services that seamlessly sync, and a much simpler and more intuitive system for sharing files between them. Chrome OS plays well enough with Android, but with a custom chip, Google could open up the system to be a true extended universe that offers a workflow you can’t get on Windows.
Of course, none of this is as simple as popping a new chip into the next Pixel phone. Aside from the complexities of designing the chip, there are numerous components that need to work and Android itself needs to be re-optimized for a new architecture. But if Google is ready to make this change now, there could be many more to come—and its biggest target might not be Samsung or other Android phone-makers. It could be the iPhone.