Why does the Google Pixel Fold really scare me?

We’ve been hearing rumors of a foldable Pixel phone codenamed “Felix” for a while now. Yesterday, leaker Jon Prosser dropped the alleged renders of the next phoneit looks like a pixel 7 pro in the guise of a foldable Oppo’s Find N. The design looks clean and the profile is its pixel 7 pro affair.

The Pixel Fold will reportedly cost a handsome $1,799 and is said to arrive in May 2023, likely alongside the Pixel 7a at the upcoming Google I/O conference. But what worries me is why Google is making a foldable Pixel first. And so far, I have not been able to understand it.

The curse of the pixels

Alleged renders of the Google Pixel Fold in black.

Google’s Pixel phones have built a solid reputation for delivering the best Android experience around. And of course great cameras. But they’re also notorious for issues ranging from terrible battery life and software issues to poor thermal management and connectivity issues.

The Pixel series has finally achieved what it was intended to do from the start, namely embodying the iconic Nexus formula, with the Pixel 7 series. The positive reception has also been reflected in the sales figures.

“We recently had our highest sales week ever for the Pixel, and I’m very proud of the positive reviews so far,” Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai said during the company’s Q3 2022 earnings call a few weeks ago. Digital Trends reviews of the pixel 7 and its Pro variant back up Google’s claims to make a good Android phone.

And that begs the question: why a foldable phone? Despite its best ambitions, Google has never quite hit the nail on the head with its Pixel phones. It took seven generations to finally make a Pixel phone that you can recommend to buyers without warning them of any major caveats.

Rendering of Google's foldable Pixel from the front.

Flip phones are notoriously difficult to master compared to regular phones. Just take a look at Samsung and its failed first-generation foldable phone. Despite all the billions in their coffers, oodles of talent, years of research, and the most advanced display technology division in the world, Samsung faltered on its first try.

It took the company a couple more generations to strike a balance between durability, design, and practicality. Expecting Google to hit a bull’s eye with its first foldable phone, especially with the tainted history of Pixels, would be ignorant at best. And silly, at worst.

Then there’s the eye-popping asking price of $1,800. Regardless of how good the phone turns out to be, it’s still a first-generation Pixel phone of its kind, which in itself is a deterrent. Plus, it’ll have a hard time beating Samsung’s own next-gen foldable phone.

A Widening Software Schism

Android 12L shown for larger screen.
A screenshot of Android 12L running on a larger screen. Google

Pixels are known for their pure no-nonsense Android experience with a garnish of exclusive features and a promise of long-term software support. It won’t be surprising to see Google offer some exclusive tablet-focused features and UI tricks on its first foldable phone.

In doing so, however, Google will further widen the gulf between the “boring” Android experience it offers to smartphone makers and the “best” version it keeps exclusively for Pixel phones. Google’s situation is complicated because it is a smartphone brand and an operating system maker that needs to evolve every year with OS updates.

If Google dedicates itself to developing unique Android experiences for its Pixel phones, both foldable and regular, it risks slowing down the pace of innovation for Android as an operating system. The onus will now fall on smartphone brands to create their own personalized experiences. In either situation, Android, as a whole, will lurch behind iOS in feature development.

Alleged schematic of Google's foldable Pixel in silver.

Yes, the Pixels are great phones, but Google doesn’t rely on phone sales to stay afloat. Instead, they serve more as a platform to showcase the best Android has to offer. But in recent years, more and more features have been locked into Pixel phones, and not all Android smartphone users are happy about that, especially people who spend a lot of money on a flagship.

After all, why spend a thousand bucks on a Samsung or OnePlus phone and still not have the same extra features as the Pixels? Meanwhile, a $999 iPhone offers the best of iOS without any warning. But here’s the hard part.

Google will have to create those unique software experiences to help its foldable phone stand out, as it goes squarely against Samsung’s own foldable phones, which are currently the gold standard in the industry. Obviously, at $1,799, Google’s foldable Pixel stands out better in every possible way.

Trying to beat Samsung at its own game

Presumed render of the Google Pixel Fold.

Then there’s the challenge of beating Samsung. It would be unwise to imagine that Google’s phone hardware, especially the folding screen and hinge technology, will be superior to Samsung Galaxy Z Foldable 4 or his successor. Samsung has spent years refining everything from battery life and temperature to the aspect of durability.

Then there is the issue of firepower. The second-generation Tensor chip still isn’t as powerful as Qualcomm’s best chip inside Samsung’s foldable, and it lags far behind Apple’s silicon. It would be next to impossible for the foldable Pixel to match those standards, let alone dream of exceeding them.

That leaves software as the only area in which Google can compete, but that won’t be easy either. Why? A Samsung user interface 5 has supercharged the big screen experience on its foldable phones. Either way, Google will have to create a far superior Android experience that’s exclusive to its foldable Pixel if it hopes to sell a $1,799 phone.

Filtered render of the Google Pixel Fold.

In the end, Android as a software ecosystem will be torn, more than ever, between a bland experience provided by other brands and a fancy version only available with Pixels. Call it access control or whatever term comes to mind, but it’s not a good picture to imagine from the point of view of an Android loyalist.

The Pixel Fold, or whatever Google ends up calling it, will definitely heat up the competition in the segment, which is always a good thing, both for innovation and customer wallets. But right now, it appears to be a risk that will not only hurt Google, but the phone ecosystem around it as well.

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