Google is taking another run at producing a usable Android tablet operating system in the form of Android 12L, which was announced and released as a developer preview back in October. And Thursday, Google released the first beta build that will run on actual hardware ahead of a planned final release later this year.
Unfortunately, even though Android 12L will run on real hardware, the initial beta support list doesn’t actually allow many people to try its new features. It’s available for the Pixel 3a, 4a, 5a, 4, and 5, but “you won’t see the large screen features on smaller screens.” And the only tablet it will run on is the Lenovo Tab P12 Pro, a relatively expensive and hard-to-find device. You could, however, also roll the dice with the Generic System Image (GSI) for other recent Android tablets. As with the dev build, Google suggests that the best place to try the large-screen features of Android 12L is in the Android emulator.
Android 12L and apps optimized for it should take better advantage of devices with large screens, whether they’re tablets, foldable phones, or laptops. Google has implemented a new interface for split-screen multitasking and has published guidelines for developing multicolumn apps that make better use of large screens, rather than the huge amounts of unused whitespace you currently get when you run a phone-sized app on a tablet-sized screen.
It all looks reasonably promising, but Google’s loose control of the Android ecosystem and its lackadaisical support for its past tablet efforts have burned both users and app developers before. If Android tablets do succeed this time around, they’ll likely be drafting off of the success of foldables like Samsung’s Galaxy Fold series or Google’s own rumored push into foldable Pixel phones. Wider multicolumn apps and split-screen multitasking will translate well to foldable devices, and it’s going to be easier to convince Android app developers to support foldable phones that people actually seem to want than it has been to get them to support a tablet ecosystem that is mostly dominated by underpowered budget hardware.
ChromeOS devices that run Android apps will also benefit from apps that make better use of increased screen space, though ChromeOS’ multitasking capabilities already go beyond what Android 12L seems capable of.
According to Google’s published timeline, this will be the first of three planned beta builds, and the final version of Android 12L will be released sometime in the spring of 2022.