- Google recently released its first foldable device, the Pixel Fold, in select markets.
- Although foldables have been around for a while, they have not yet gone mainstream, mainly due to high price tags, hardware issues, and software challenges.
- It is being felt that the arrival of the Pixel Fold could pave the way for a more affordable foldable, as Google has now showcased its own version of stock Android for foldables.
Google formally released its first foldable device, the Pixel Fold, a few days ago in a few markets. And judging by the reviews that have come in, the Search giant seems to have made a rather decent fist of its first foldable. Most of the reviews have tended to revolve around the hardware of the phone, particularly how the inner display opens and interacts with the outer one, the presence of the much-feared ‘crease,’ and so on.
However, from what I have seen of the Pixel Fold, its real revolution could be in terms of software, the whole interface that Google has built around its foldable.
The software headaches of foldable
One of the biggest challenges for foldables that are phone and tablet combos is the software that runs on them. This is of massive importance because it is the software that really determines the user experience of any device. You can have the best processor, display, and cameras in the world and all the RAM and storage that you want, but it will all come to naught unless you have the right software running on it. And writing software for a foldable that works like a phone and a tablet can be a not of a nightmare.
A software developer in a foldable manufacturing brand, who did not wish to be named, told us that the challenge was that every foldable was literally two phones – one outside and one inside. Writing software that let you switch from one to the other seamlessly was often a huge challenge.
“It’s like switching between two monitors, one small and one large, by just hitting Alt+Tab. It is the speed at which you move from a phone interface to a tablet interface that is a headache. It is easier on flip phones because the external display is generally a notifications screen, but on a Galaxy Fold-type device, you literally have a smartphone outside and a tablet inside and have to make an interface that is able to change itself every time the phone folds. It is not as simple as just stretching the same software across a display,” he told us.
Why the Pixel Fold OS matters as much (if not more) than the hardware
As there has been no standard Android interface for foldables running on a device (say Android on a Nexus or a Pixel), most brands, be it Samsung, or Xiaomi, or Oppo, have come out with their own variations of Android for their foldables. These software solutions are highly proprietary in nature, and this has held up the development of foldables. Brands looking to make a foldable not only have to invest in hardware and design but also in software – the software that runs on smartphones just will not cut it on a foldable.
This is why the Pixel Fold is a huge deal for foldables. It is the first phone-tablet foldable to come with a version of Android that has been designed by Google itself (the brand that largely controls Android)for a foldable device. We do not know what restrictions this software might have, but going by the history of Android, it is certainly more likely to be more accessible and easier to work with than the foldable interfaces from other brands.
“It could be the stock Android for foldables,” the software developer told us. “It is like Google has given us a basic structure to work with, one which is not just a pile of code on books, but one which we can see working on a device. This is, in a way, like the first Android phone, the Dream. We all had heard of Android and seen the code, but to see it work on a device, allowed us to really see how it worked.” He also said from what he had seen, Google’s OS for the Pixel Fold seemed to be “a whole lot easier” to work with than what Samsung and Xiaomi have.
A Moto G for foldables? It could happen (not immediately, though)
The implications of having a version of Android that is tailor-made for foldables and is not tied to a particular brand in a technological or financial sense are immense. A number of brands that might have fought shy of investing in the foldable form factor simply because of the need for additional investment in software for a foldable device now have a basic framework to work with. It is also significant that most of Google’s own apps would work smoothly with its own foldable software. So users could find themselves with a foldable that might not have all the bells and whistles that a Galaxy Fold has, but one which is extremely useful for most tasks.
It is also interesting to note that while some functionalities on the Pixel Fold might be tied to the Tensor G2 chip, the processor itself is not the most powerful around. In fact, in sheer benchmark terms, it might be one of the least powerful chips on a phone-tablet foldable – the Tensor G2 is supposed to lag behind the Dimensity 9000+ on the Tecno Phantom V Fold. That might break the hearts of number crunchers, but it does mean that the version of Android running on the Pixel Fold might not really need the latest and greatest hardware.
In essence, the arrival of the Pixel Fold might have potentially opened the door for a more accessible and affordable foldable. “A sort of Moto G for foldables,” according to the app developer. This would be a device that is not the most powerful around but lets you do enough and runs Google’s stock Android for foldables. It might not come with premium materials and might just be made of plastic, might not run flagship processors or have amazing cameras with OIS, but it will allow users to enjoy a phone and tablet experience in a single device, and come with a way more affordable price tag than most foldables today. If it becomes popular, it could attract a lot of software developers as designing apps for it would be a bit easier than for proprietary operating systems and lead to a burst of apps designed for the Android ecosystem. In short, this could well trigger off the foldable revolution many have been predicting.
Mind you, if this does happen, it is unlikely to take place in the immediate future. This is because brands are likely to focus on milking the premium perception of foldable devices for a while. However, the Pixel Fold might have just helped foldables take their first real step to becoming mainstream through its software, not its specs.