Google’s tablet-focused version of Android, Android 12L, hits production devices today as “Android 12.1.” Google’s tablet update debuts in a rather cumbersome way, with no actual tablet hardware to run on. Google says the tablet hardware will come “later this year”, with Samsung, Lenovo and Microsoft planning foldable devices and tablets running the new operating system.
What we’re getting today are Pixel phone versions for the Pixel 3a, Pixel 4, Pixel 4a, Pixel 5, and Pixel 5a. The Pixel 6 is once again not getting an update at the same time as other devices, although Google tells 9to5 that a Pixel 6 update will be coming out later this month. Since almost all features of Android 12L are tablet features, the version does little for phones.
The big features of Android 12.1 are a new taskbar UI for tablets, dual-pane UIs for the notification panel and system settings, and a new recent apps view for larger screens. For regular-sized screens, you get the smallest number of tweaks, like the ability to turn off Android 12’s big lock screen clock and a new interface for quickly selecting wallpapers.
If Google wants to find its way back into the tablet market, a few OS-level tweaks are a good place to start. But if the search giant really wants to be successful, it needs to update its apps to support dual-panel tablet surfaces. Google has previously conducted coordinated, company-wide pushes for specific Android releases. When the new Material You design guidelines rolled out with Android 12, Google was ready with day-one updates to Gmail, Chrome, the Play Store, YouTube Music, Google Calendar, and more. When Google decided that dark mode was a good idea, we gradually saw every Google app updated to support the new style.
Now, Google needs the same thing for tablets: a huge, coordinated, enterprise-wide push for tablet apps. The device numbers won’t initially be there to support this, but in the chicken-and-egg scenario of building an ecosystem, you must first build the software before customers buy in. I was hoping that we’d see a batch of app updates launch alongside Android 12L, but that doesn’t look like it today.
Getting Samsung and Lenovo ready with new tablet features by the end of the year really seems to be the point of releasing Android 12.1. As the name suggests, this is one of the smaller versions of Android in recent memory, with only a handful of core OS features and not much else. Android 12L was completely outside of the normal Android release schedule, with an odd October-March developer preview. As of February, Google actually ran simultaneous developer previews for Android 12L and Android 13 at the same time. Rushing the 12L features to market gives Samsung and Lenovo the usual six-month deadline to finalize a new version of Android in time for the holiday season. Hopefully some tablet apps will come out by then.