The first Android Q beta hints at Google's bold gaming plan - Wired.co.uk

The first Android Q beta hints at Google's bold gaming plan  Wired.co.ukThe first beta version of Google's Android Q has been released. And with the new operating system, the company shows folding phones are here to stay and ...

The first Android Q beta hints at Google's bold gaming plan - Wired.co.uk

Getty Images / Bloomberg / Contributor

Google has released the first beta of Android Q. It won’t give the software its official moment in the spotlight until the Google I/O conference in May, of course, but we already know some important information about its direction.

Android Q will tighten up certain privacy elements. You’ll be able to give apps one-time access to your location. A taxi app will be able to see where you are, without necessarily knowing that information until, and only when, you want it to. Such changes are both important and a deflection in equal parts. Google flicks digital parasites off us to avoid the realisation we are gradually becoming the parasites on its own great big, tessellated back.

This is nothing new, but there is another part to Android Q that is. Google is taking seriously, and doing so early.

Folding fast

Android standard procedure is to watch as companies like Samsung, HTC and Huawei play with new hardware and software features like children working on science projects. It can ignore the failures, and co-opt the obvious successes by creating platform-wide Android APIs, modules that standardise behaviours across apps and devices.

Google is often relatively slow to add these. For example, Samsung came up with its own version of split-screen phone apps, Multi Window, in 2012 with the Galaxy S3. A version of it was only added to standard Android four years later in 2016.

You can call Google slow if you like, but you can’t really call it “wrong”. Very few people use the feature, even those with Android tablets.

That Android Q jumps into optimisation for folding phones before any of the things are available to buy has weight. The first two important examples of these are the and .

These use a layer of software made by their manufacturers that determines how their display(s) behave when they are opened up. Much of the framework of this is in Android already, because Android apps have had to contend with enough screen sizes and resolutions to give developers a migraine since year one.

However, Android Q seeks to normalise these jarring shifts so the workarounds devised by Samsung, Huawei and others will not be needed in the future. Changes to the “onresume” and “onpause” fragments and the “resizeableActivity” manifest in Q make Android a more welcoming place for folding and multi-screen phones.

Prepared ground

There are three obvious reasons for such early moves. First, not every future maker of foldable phones will have the same budget, or the inclination, as Samsung and Huawei to work on a solution that avoids that crucial unfolding moment seeming as clunky as the gear shift of a rust-ridden 1991 Ford Sierra. Bad Android phones reflect badly on Android as a whole. Particularly expensive folding ones.

This is also an obvious opportunity for Google to advance ahead of Apple in one area. That we are only now talking about Apple registering “” patents suggests any hardware it will make is far off.

And is Google working on its own folding phone? Again, some patents suggest it may be. But by standardising folding display behaviour, “first party” hardware becomes less important. Google Pixel phones are at their most interesting, to nerds at any rate, when showing off the advanced camera processing not seen elsewhere.

Is it in the game?

A welcoming of folding phones ties in with other projects, too. Google will hold an event at GDC, one of the largest gaming expos, on March 19. It is expected to focus on the future of Project Stream.

Project Stream is a game streaming service beta tested in late 2018. Members of the public with fast home internet played Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey in the chrome browser to try it out. Like the defunct OnLive or Microsoft’s just-announced , all the brains playing the games are in a computer farm somewhere. The device on your end simply receives the video signal, which is a lot of data. And sends out the controller interactions, a small amount of data.

Some expect Google to launch a game console at GDC, which would not necessarily need to be much more than a box, with a version of Android, that plugs into your TV. It becomes a more interesting technical challenge when this kind of service is applied in phones, particularly the new folding kind large enough to play such games without facing major interface scaling problems.

Traditionally, these gaming services have been more exciting to talk about than use. Lag is their main enemy, and lag is present even when used with a fast Wi-Fi connection. Fast games suddenly seem lethargic. And Fornite, which Netflix calls one of its main rivals for consumers’ attention, is fast.

The lag factor

Project Stream, or whatever it is eventually called, should prove not just one of the top selling points for a foldable phone, but one of the most interesting demos of both and Wi-Fi 6.

Such new-for-2019 connectivity standards are usually discussed in terms of their bandwidth. 5G can download a 4K movie in eight seconds, you may have heard. But only pirates and people in airports desperately trying to download something to watch on the plane download movies.

Latency is arguably the more important factor here. 5G radically reduces latency, from 4G’s 120ms down to as little as 1ms, theoretically at least. This could eliminate the main issue of game streaming, that “damn lag”. Wi-Fi 6 also reduces latency.

Who has a data allowance generous enough to cover the kind of data use required? And won’t it take years for 5G to fill cities without dead spots, let alone elsewhere? These are issues for networks. But the concept of UK networks offering bolt-ons specifically for this service is cogent enough.

The PSP effect

It raises a wider point. Is the idea of a seven- or eight-inch fold-out phone on which you can play Assassin’s Creed or The Witcher 3 that appealing? Before you say “obviously”, picture unfolding your phone on the train, and slotting it into Google’s impersonation of an Xbox One gamepad.

Nintendo’s is the clear commercial reference point here. It has sold 32 million units, and has doubtless featured on the internal presentations of companies working on folding phones desperate to quantify their appeal.

But replicating Nintendo magic is always harder than it appears. The Nintendo Switch is a relatively low-tech system. It has fairly low-powered CPU and GPUs, a low-resolution display. But is buoyed by ultra-high quality first-party IP, which any Google plans lack, and an extremely family friendly ecosystem.

Are folding phones, at best, to become the gaming equivalent of the PSP and PS Vita? Technical marvels for their time that ultimately misunderstand or fail to capture the same appeal as Nintendo’s handhelds?

This is a lot to unwind from some tweaked elements referenced in an Android Q developer blog. But it’s one reason to watch out for Google’s GDC announcement if folding phones seem the future to you, rather than tech’s latest expensive gimmick.

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