Android 12L oddity: Google’s introduction to foldable tablets and devices

You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. The latest impression Google wants to convey is that Android will power the next wave of big-screen devices. Besides the announcements, the biggest sign of Google’s commitment to this effort is Android 12L, a version of the mobile operating system especially for foldable devices and tablets. It launched at the beginning of this month, but so far it’s only been a drop in the ocean and feels like a missed opportunity for Google to get excited about the Android trend.

Why “Android foldable devices” and “Android tablets”

There are two parts to Google’s interest in the big screens. If foldable devices are indeed a new premium in smartphones from now on, Google has to make sure that Android is the de facto operating system for that new category to maintain its position as the most popular operating system in the world. This includes making sure it’s easy for OEMs to create devices that are different enough to justify upgrades from wood-style smartphones, which are already pretty excellent. New form factors are very hard to come by and folds represent what could be the last new category for several years before smart augmented reality glasses.

This ease also extends to making it easier for developers to create apps that are optimized for both the phone’s external screen and the larger internal screen. In turn, these enhanced experiences are what justifies their foldability for end users. Everyone loves a bigger screen, which allows folding to be portable, but it can’t just be about watching a movie or playing a game on a bigger screen. There should be new things people can do with this type of device from productivity to multitasking.

Meanwhile, the tablet is Google’s second big screen. Foldable devices appear to be something OEM partners are paying more for, while Google is clearly the driver for tablets with huge claims that the form factor will be the “future of computing”. The company expects tablet sales to eventually surpass laptops, and this is a huge opportunity for Android to gain a foothold for the operating system in the space between smartphones and laptops.

For Google, the greater portability of tablets compared to laptops allows for more use cases. When combined with the inclusion of a simple touchscreen that can be augmented by a stylus, a trusty rear camera, and even cellular connectivity, “tablet first” users and apps should be able to do more.

Why Android 12L

Android 12L is Google’s recent attempt to make the user experience on tablets and foldables “simpler and easier to use”. Two-column layouts, one of the simplest ways to take advantage of the big screen, are everywhere from the lock screen and notification shade to settings. Meanwhile, the taskbar helps and encourages multitasking. The latter makes the Android experience on the big screen across OEMs more consistent, while the former is largely instructing developers to stop creating extended apps.

As the name suggests, 12L is derived from Android 12. For contemporary Android, it’s an out-of-cycle version that Google has explicitly decided to brand and build around the big screens. It launched at the beginning of this month, but Google doesn’t really have anything to show for it, which is remarkably odd for such a big push.

For starters, not a single Google app has been updated with an improved tablet experience in the past few weeks. As you pointed out, the state of the first-party tablet apps is pretty disappointing. There are still plenty of extended phone apps out there when the two-part user interface should be minimal. Meanwhile, there are only a handful of really rethought apps for tablets, and they all go back a few years ago.

This unfortunate case stands in stark contrast to the very successful adoption of Material You across Google’s largest apps in time for the release of Android 12 on the Pixel last fall. The company is very capable of rolling out redesigns en masse. It is unclear why something similar was not commissioned in conjunction with 12 liters. It is important to remember that app updates benefit all existing tablet users and may have encouraged them to upgrade their devices to get the full benefit.

Meanwhile, a fundamental failure is that the latest version of Android 12L does not appear on any existing large screen device. Instead, Google was only able to announce the start of updates from Samsung, Lenovo, and Microsoft this year.

Google and its partners may surprise us with quick updates, but let’s take Samsung as an example. The OEM has just launched three new flagship tablets running Android 12, while it has already started updating older models. If 12 liters is on the books for the first quarter to the first half of this year, why not wait to introduce new hardware with an entirely new experience. In the Android space, flagship tablets, unlike smartphones, are not the main driver of the manufacturer’s revenue. Imagine how much Google’s new push into tablets would have resonated if it was launched with devices from the biggest OEMs. Such an occurrence isn’t really a stretch given how Google is already marketing the Fold 3 and Flip 3 directly through its enhanced apps.

Of course, there is an alternative for Samsung to release a large tablet.

Why not use Pixel

Google has historically aligned Fall Android and Pixel launches. As such, it is unfortunate that the release of Android 12L was not accompanied by any first-party device. A foldable Pixel has been rumored for a while now, and the 12L seemed an ideal time to announce such a device. At the most basic level, Pixel hardware would have allowed people to actually use 12 liters on big screens at launch. This is literally not possible today and it won’t be until “later this year”.

However, there are a number of potential reasons why the foldable Pixel hasn’t launched yet, from cost and feature-competitiveness to the form factor that presents real design difficulties.

However, these rationales do not extend to why Google has not yet built a first-party tablet. Since the creation of Made by Google, the hardware division has not made an Android tablet. There was only the Pixel Slate running Chrome OS and a later decision not to run a pair of smaller tablets that also run the OS.

Google’s last big-screen Android device was the Pixel C in 2015. The failure of Android on the really big screens in the late 2000s led to an unwritten arrangement that Chrome OS would run the form factor (and in a different world it would have been possible). It starts with Pixel c). The renewed interest in tablets, especially those with dockable keyboards, has clearly changed this perception and it’s time to try Google again.

Unfortunately, there are no rumors of such a device, with current speculation that Tensor will debut on the Pixelbook next year. It’s a disappointing case, and hardware like this is essential to serve as the standard bearer for Google’s renewed tablet ambitions.

Why is it just an introduction?

Today, Android 12L is just a boost to Google’s grand ambitions in the foldable and tablet space. The company might use the 12L to show OEM partners and app developers alike that it’s serious about big screens, but even that could have been better handled with a first-party action.

The situation you’re in right now is that people hear about Google’s commitment to big screens but can’t really try it outside of the emulator or the Lenovo Developer Preview. Let’s say first-party app updates happen then as encouragement and a guide for third-party developers, while OEMs start releasing 12L updates on existing tablets. At this point, people will see that Google is finally addressing the extended app issue, while existing tablet owners get a new operating system and improvements in everyday use that boost word of mouth. What would really cement Google’s commitment are first-party hardware that would openly tell you which new Android tablet you’re getting.

Android 12L should run with (first or third party) hardware, updates to existing foldable tablets/devices, and app redesign. Instead, Google only has an ad to display for the latest version of its operating system. It dramatically reduces momentum and breaks what could have been a promising boost into pieces.

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