Discover more from The Rectangle
The Pixel Fold is Google's final shot at smartphone relevance
The company makes great phones that no one cares about — can its new one change that?
It happened, it finally happened: Google launched the Pixel Fold.
“Who cares?” I can hear you say, “And what even is that?”
Shhh, it’s okay, I’ve got you. No, all that you need to know about the Google Pixel Fold is, uh, two-fold:
It’s been keenly anticipated
It has a screen that folds out
As The Rectangle isn’t obsessed with technical details, I won’t get into the phone’s specs. For that, go and check out the ever-reliable GSMArena.
So… why is the Pixel Fold important?
Because it could make or break Google’s aspirations to be a top-tier phone brand and be a defining point in foldable phones.
No pressure, then.
To begin, let’s spray some context over this like an electronics-obsessed skunk.
Recently, I had a chat about the future of smartphones with Michael Fisher, an American YouTuber known as MrMobile. When these devices first launched, it felt as though there was an endless array of exciting things happening in the sector, with design boundaries being constantly pushed.
But nowadays? The market has matured. Pretty much every phone acts and looks the same. We’re in the age of the shiny black rectangle.
Fisher pointed out one important exception to this though: foldables.
Led by Samsung’s Galaxy Z Fold and Flip range, this type of phone has a screen that’s able to be manipulated and expanded. The devices have been slowly gaining more prominence — something analysts suspect will continue.
To the data!
Counterpoint believes global shipments of foldables will grow 52% this year, hitting 22.7 million units sold.
IDC agrees with this upwards trajectory, predicting the market will be worth $29 billion in 2025, leading to 27.6 million devices sold that year.
But here’s where I get sceptical.
Firstly, although IDC predicts the size of the foldable market will triple by 2025, this would still only account for 1.7% of all phones.
Small fry stuff, really.
Secondly, the devices have been around since 2019 — about four years at the time of writing. This is an age in the tech industry. And, be honest with me, how many people do you know with a foldable?
This isn’t to say foldables won’t become popular eventually, it’s simply that they have a lot of disadvantages compared to the shiny black rectangles most of us use.
And their key drawback? They just don’t work as well.
Foldable screens aren’t as bright or responsive, many apps don’t function correctly on the expanding screens, and they’re often eye-wateringly expensive.
Until all this is sorted — and I have doubts the screens themselves will ever reach true parity — foldables won’t threaten the status quo.
Yet, there is a chance. There’s always a chance, especially if the experience gets so close to a regular phone that the difference between them is negligible.
And this is where we come back to Google.
Google has been been making phones in some form since 2008 (or 2010 if you believe the Nexus One was its first), yet, in that time, it’s struggled to make a dent in the market.
The company has never been close to being in the top five global smartphone vendors. While data from 2021 suggests that in the company’s biggest market (Canada), it’s market share was only 4.2%. This figure drops quickly, as its 8th largest market only has a 0.9% share.
Google, suffice to say, does not make popular phones. Oddly enough, it does make very good ones.
I’ve long been a fan of Google’s Pixel range. In fact, I’d go so far as to say they’re my favourite Android phones.
That’s why the Pixel Fold is so vital. Currently, the company is in a strange situation where it makes fantastic devices that few care about. Its regular phones struggle to stand out in a saturated market — and the Pixel Fold is an opportunity to change that.
Currently, the foldable space is dominated solely by Samsung. Yes, are competitors (like the OPPO Find N2 or the Motorola Razr 2022), but none of these companies are a serious challenger to the Korean company’s devices.
Yet Google can be.
It has the resources and control over Android to make an era-defining foldable. Plus, it’s still early to the party. There’s the room to capture the public’s imagination, align itself with the type of phone, and become a major player in the space.
Here, we circle back to another problem: do the public at large really want foldables? What would they actually be used for?
Let’s take this high-budget video Google made to promote the Pixel Fold as an example:
Watching it, I was hit with one key thought: there’s nothing done with the Pixel Fold in the video that couldn’t be achieved with a regular phone.
In other words, there’s no selling point.
Really, foldables still appear stuck in a no-man’s land; they’re not as good at being regular phones or tablets as, well, a regular phone or tablet.
Can this change? Potentially. But the phones have been around long enough that I feel the benefits for regular people would be clearer by now.
Yes, there are a selection of people the devices are perfect for, but for foldables to thrive and be worth all the investment, they need to be mass-market devices. A 0.5% market share in 2021 just isn’t enough.
All this leads back to why the Pixel Fold is so important; it’s a marker, a key inflexion point for both Google and the sector as a whole.
If it’s a success, it will not only make its manufacturer a key part of the mobile hardware ecosystem, but also define a whole sector. Serious competition between Samsung and Google could drive foldables to new heights.
Yet, if the Pixel Fold falls flat? It’ll be a death knell for both foldables and Google’s own smartphone aspirations. The devices will remain a niche concern, rather than the future of mobile.
It’s impossible to say which way things will go, but I’ll leave you with this: despite everything I’ve said, goddamn, I really want a Pixel Fold.