Comment: Optimizing Android for foldable devices by increasing the notification shade

Google’s big-screen push that began with Android 12L culminates with the launch of the Pixel Tablet and the Fold. Now that it’s on shipping hardware, I think the tablet benefited much more from the foldable, with another unit of Android optimization needed for the unique hardware form factor.

Using modern Android on the Pixel Tablet and soon the Fold, I have no idea when to multitask in split screen. This is despite the screen comfortably supporting two phone-sized apps side-by-side.

When I want to multitask, it’s often not with a second app but rather with the notification shade, which today Android treats as a full screen layer above the home screen/apps.

I’m envisioning the ability to view and interact with the notification shade on one half of the display while the other shows an app. That’s decidedly not possible at the moment, with split-screen access for one application immediately requiring you to choose a second one. Similarly, I want to have an app on one half while the other window is just a phone sized home screen, allowing me to browse/scroll through widgets.

This may be the first phase of things, but I’m envisioning something radically different for the future: an OS built specifically for Android foldables that breaks the home screen and apps-as-silo paradigm by replacing it with an interactive, visible feed .

Ambitious, Google Now

The feed I’m envisioning is basically a combination of the existing notification shade and Google Now.

Google Now could have been the start of something radically different. Instead of apps with different layouts and behaviors, this feed surfaced information from first-party and third-party sources with easy-to-digest tabs. Instead of isolating your data, Google Now curated it in one place with a consistent card-based metaphor that was easily accessible from anywhere on the operating system.

I strongly believe that this idea needs to be revived. Instead of being tied to apps, an operating system with a feed as the primary user interface makes it easier to access information that is fundamentally yours.

For the last 15 years or so, the primary method of interaction for smartphones (and tablets) has been launching an app from a grid of icons. (The only real break we’ve had from this are smartwatches, where the watch face with data-heavy complications is the thing you primarily interact with.)

To its credit, the home screen and using one app at a time is extremely simple, thus allowing Android and iOS to become the primary computing platform for most, but hopefully we won’t stagnate there. Widgets were an attempt to add more real-time information to your home screen, but there will always be a need for a notification shade (and lock screen) to deliver the most pressing alerts.

Google Now via the notification shade

The best place to create a modern Google Now is through notifications. Android alerts are already incredibly vibrant and usable. I can reply to messages, which is especially easy with smart suggestions, and read the bulk of an email to decide whether to scroll for later or delete/archive.

I guess notifications in an OS influenced by Google Now are more than compact lines of text. There may be consistent patterns for key notification types such as upcoming events, tasks/to-dos, conversations, weather, upcoming flights, transit, news, smart home (doorbell) alerts, points of interest.

The key would be for the notifications to be highly visible and usable without having to venture into the full app to get things done. There might be mini-apps like media controls that allow for some navigation, browsable lists for upcoming events and reminders, or other complication-like experiences with real-time data that wouldn’t be too different from advanced widgets, or they might as well be just that. There should be some sort of ranking system with conversations shown first, just like there is today.

While Google Now had consent from third-party developers, notifications can serve as a fallback experience for services that don’t adopt the new system right away. The upside here is that Google could do a lot with the first-party apps it controls, from messages to upcoming events and calendar tasks. The key, of course, would be to take email notifications from third-party services and make them more digestible.

Start with the leaflets

The best place to debut something like this is the leaflets. I’m thinking specifically about how the internal screen is physically partitioned by a crease that creates a natural separator between apps and system screens.

I’m picturing the cover display (of a Fold-like device) showing the typical home screen experience. Once opened, it will appear in the right half of the internal screen, while the left shows the existing notification shade (with a row of Quick Settings at the top) by default. You can still open apps on either side, but that left side’s initial state should be a notification feed.

Whether or not Google Now returns, I think something as vital as the notification shade should no longer be relegated to a swipe-down overlay. It’s as important as any app for getting the job done, and it has the benefit of gathering so many disparate sources.

That hardware distinction might familiarize people with the concept, and is (in my opinion) a much better use of the foldable nature than just using the larger canvas for more or even bigger apps. Some apps really benefit from adopting a two-column UI that lets you better interact with information, but I’m hesitant that Android adds some sort of floating window model (like Samsung did).

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but it seems like wasted potential for expensive hardware if we end up replicating windowing from desktop operating systems.

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