Google held an I/O conference earlier this month, and to longtime Google watchers, the event looked like a hangout. Google CEO Sundar Pichai took to the stage to deliver his keynote address and direct the spirits of long-dead Google products. “I hear… something about an Android tablet? And a smartwatch?” seemed to say.
By my count, “Reviving the Past” accounts for about half of the company’s major announcements. In all of these cases, Google would be in a much stronger position if it had stuck to a long-term plan and consistently iterated on that plan.
Unfortunately, the company doesn’t have that kind of downward trend. Instead, for most of the revived products, Google is trying to catch up with competitors after years of holding out. There’s a question we have to ask every ad: “Will things be different this time?”
Android tablets are back
Since when are Android tablets dead? Some companies, like Samsung, have never given up on this idea, but the last actual piece of Google’s tablet PC was the Pixel C in 2015. The Android tablet user interface has been gone for a while. Its development peaked with the initial release of Android 3.0 Honeycomb in 2011, and every subsequent Android release and Google app update toned down the tablet’s interface until it disappeared. App developers took Google’s neglect as a sign that they should stop making Android tablets as well, and the ecosystem collapsed.
After the 2015 Pixel C release, Google exited the tablet market for three years and then launched the Pixel Slate Chrome-OS tablet. Then she left the tablet market for another three years. Now she’s back. Will the company’s new plans produce other year-long wonders like the Pixel Slate?
Some of the biggest tablet news coming from the show was that Google is really committed to developing tablet apps again. The company has announced that it will bring tablet interfaces to more than 20 Google apps, and has shown screenshots of most of them. Tablet versions of Google Play, YouTube, Google Maps, Chrome and a host of other hitters were shown. Google even got some third parties committed to creating Android apps for tablets, including Facebook, Zoom, and TikTok. All of this will help make the Android tablet experience something worth investing in.
Google also announced a new tablet, the Pixel Tablet, with a release scheduled for a very distant date “sometime in 2023”. It’s a large looking widescreen tablet and regular phone apps won’t look good on it. I’m speculating here, but the Pixel tablet looks cheap. I don’t say that as an underestimation of the product; I mean, it seems to be aimed at competing with Amazon Fire tablets more than iPads.
The product only got a 30-second teaser at Google I/O, but Google showed off what looks like a thicker tablet, which is usually a hallmark of a cheaper device. The only camera on the back looked like a punch-hole camera in the basement, the back might be plastic. If Google wanted to target the iPad, we’d probably see a thinner design and a stack of accessories, like a stylus and keyboard.
Going after the Fire tablet would make sense. It is the most popular (forked) Android tablet on the market. Given Google’s immature tablet ecosystem, it would be easier to win people over with a cheaper product than paying a premium right out of the gate. This also wouldn’t be new, since the Nexus 7 line slated the cheap tablets for a few years until Google lost interest.
Google’s presentation is also perfectly in line with rumors that the company’s next “smart display” will be a detachable tablet. The last thing the joke showed was a bunch of pogo pins, which could be for a clever display base. Google also highlighted the smart home support for Google Nest Camera, which is currently a smart display feature. The docked smart display mode is something Fire tablets do today, lending more credence to the idea that Google wants to compete with Amazon products.
So far, all this work makes it seem as if Google is trying to get back what it got rid of shortly after the release of Honeycomb. The company did release a tablet-focused update for Android in March – Android 12L – but that was much less ambitious than Honeycomb’s release. Android 13 will continue to work more on the tablet.
The rise of foldable devices has changed the market as well, and these devices need tablet apps to function well. If people with major Android phones had devices that suddenly opened up to tablets, the market for tablet apps would be a lot stronger. Assuming that the foldable future is already happening, more and more devices will require large screen app designs even if the standalone Android tablet explodes completely.