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Google is giving Android on tablets another shot

·Reviews Editor
·4 min read

In case there wasn't enough news this week, Google is revealing a new version of Android that's designed for larger screens like tablets and foldables. It's called Android 12L, and is really just a set of new features for the existing OS that are optimized for big screens. The developer preview is available today as an SDK on Google's site so app makers can begin taking in some of the new features that should make for a more cohesive experience on devices with bigger displays. The public version of 12L will arrive early next year, "in time for the next wave of Android 12 tablets and foldables," the company said. The preview will also be "coming soon to the Lenovo P12 Pro."

While Android already supports a sort of multi-window experience, there are still areas of the interface that feel more like a blown up version of a phone OS, rather than something that makes better use of the increased space. One of the things coming to Android 12L is a two-column layout for the notification shade and lockscreen when the system detects that the screen is above 600dps wide. Google said other system surfaces and apps will adopt this look too, though it didn't specify which yet. 

Android 12L will also feature a taskbar at the bottom of larger screens that will let you more easily open apps. This will also simplify the process of launching things in split-screen mode: just drag and drop an icon from the taskbar. Google is also enabling all apps to run in split screen, regardless of whether they are resizable. 

An animation showing how to drag and drop icons from the new task bar on Android 12L to launch an app in split screen.
An animation showing how to drag and drop icons from the new task bar on Android 12L to launch an app in split screen.

Cosmetically, Google is also adding tools that let developers make their apps look better in various windows or views. They'll be able to use custom letterbox colors or treatments, apply custom rounded corners and adjust the position of inset windows. 

The above features are already available for preview in the developer software, but there are also changes coming that app creators have to apply for users to experience them. Google recommends that developers create versions of their UI tailored to the window size class of each device, and it's added reference devices for programmers to see their layouts across phones, tablets, foldable's larger internal displays and desktops. 

For devices that can fold, Android 12L will offer an API that will allow developers to make their apps aware of hinges or other boundaries, and use them "as natural separators." This means that when supported, you might be able to use an app like Kindle and have it show a two-column layout when your device is folded and expand to fullscreen when you open your phone completely flat.

Google is also adding ways to make adopting this easier for developers with a new Activity embedding tool and other updates in the Jetpack Window Manager library. The interface will be backward-compatible, so those using older versions of Android can still use apps that are optimized for 12L. 

An animation showing the Messages app expand into a two-column layout when its screen is extended.
An animation showing the Messages app expand into a two-column layout when its screen is extended.

The company is also releasing its Material You design system to Jetpack Compose, so that developers can add the adaptive theming capabilities to their apps. This means that, when supported, third-party apps can also take on the color scheme that Google derived from your wallpaper, and buttons or menu highlight hues can reflect the palette for a more cohesive look throughout Android 12. 

Finally, to give developers a reason (or disincentive) to get their apps optimized for Android 12L, Google is updating the Play Store. It will check each app against its large screen app quality guidelines and take the results into ranking and search listing considerations. It'll go even further by warning people on bigger devices with notices on an app's Play Store page if it's not been optimized for 12L. 

Android has long faced criticism over being a poor OS for tablets and bigger displays, and 12L does appear promising. Google also announced some updates to make it easier for developers to code for WearOS, including offering Jetpack Compose support for the platform. It looks like the company is working hard to improve areas that it's been behind Apple on, and we'll have to see how developers take to these changes to know if Google's tablet, foldable and smartwatch dreams might succeed.