Android tablets, take two
Android 12L represents Google’s second attempt to launch an Android tablet ecosystem; the first was the 2011 launch of Android 3.0 Honeycomb. A big reason the earlier devices failed to take off was their lack of tablet-specific apps, and Google was a major part of the problem. While it shipped a decent suite of apps with Honeycomb, the company never iterated on them for long. Google seemed to lose interest in the software side of tablets when they didn’t become an immediate success, and Android slowly lost the bare-bones tablet functionality it initially had. By the time the last Google tablet, the Pixel C, launched in 2016, the device was dead on arrival thanks to a neglected tablet app ecosystem.
Hopefully, Google has learned the lessons of Honeycomb and leads the tablet app ecosystem by example. The company needs to invest significantly in building tablet apps for all its major products, and it needs to maintain them and iterate on them for years. In the Honeycomb era, it was hard to demand that any third-party developer invest in the tablet ecosystem when Google wasn’t even willing to do it itself.
The main difference between today and the Honeycomb era is the advent of foldables. Samsung has been developing the Galaxy Fold for three years now, with no signs of slowing down. As the company hits record-high foldable sales and record-low slab smartphone sales, it seems that foldables may soon represent a significant chunk of the high-end Android smartphone market. Robust software support will be essential.
One interesting question Google still has to answer is “what exactly is Android 12L for?” Google hasn’t made an Android tablet for six years, so there are no devices that are immediately compatible with the Android 12L Developer Preview. You have to run it on an emulator. The Android hardware ecosystem seems to have known this big-screen release was coming. In addition to all the new Samsung foldables and tablets, we’ve seen Xiaomi, Lenovo, Nokia, and Walmart all take a sudden interest in tablet hardware.
Eventually, real device support is coming with the 12L preview. Google says that sometime “soon,” the developer preview will come to the Lenovo P12 Pro. Google also notes that “12L is for phones, too, but since most of the new features won’t be visible on smaller screens, for now we’re keeping the focus on tablets, ChromeOS devices, and foldables. Later in the preview, we plan to open up Android Beta enrollments for Pixel devices.” When Android 12 launched, Google indicated mysterious beta builds would be arriving for the Pixel phones in December. It’s a safe bet that this refers to the 12L beta.
So does Google plan to release tablets or foldables any time soon? A bunch of Pixel Foldable rumors are floating around, and given that the Android team frequently develops hardware and software together, it sure looks like this is the software half of the Google Foldables plan. Google notes that Android 12L will eventually come to phones, but not right now, as “most of the new features won’t be visible on smaller screens.”
Google says it plans to bring Android 12L to market “early next year, in time for the next wave of Android 12 tablets and foldables.”
“We’re also offering the features to our OEM partners to bring to their existing large screen devices,” Google says.
Update: Google posted an Android 12L timeline. There are four beta releases, (including today) and the timeline suggests a final release in March (although sometimes these get extended).