Google held its I/O conference earlier this month, and for longtime Google watchers, the event felt like a seance. Google CEO Sundar Pichai took the stage for his keynote address, channeling the ghosts of long-dead Google products. “I’m hearing… something about an Android tablet? And a smartwatch?” he seemed to be saying.
By my count, the “revival of the past” made up about half of the company’s major announcements. In all of these cases, Google would be in a much stronger position if it committed to a long-term plan and continuously iterated on that plan.
Unfortunately, the company doesn’t have that kind of top-down orientation. Instead, Google is trying to catch up with the competition on most of its resurgent products after years of stagnation. There’s one question we have to ask ourselves with every announcement: “Will it be different this time?”
Android tablets are back
How Long Are Android Tablets Dead? Some companies, like Samsung, never gave up on the idea, but Google’s last actual tablet hardware was the Pixel C in 2015. Android’s tablet UI has been gone for a while. Its development peaked with the initial release of Android 3.0 Honeycomb in 2011, and each subsequent Android release and Google app update watered down the tablet interface until it disappeared. App developers took Google’s negligence as a sign that they should also stop making Android tablets, and the ecosystem collapsed.
After releasing the Pixel C in 2015, Google exited the tablet market for three years and then released the Pixel Slate Chrome OS tablet. It then left the tablet market for another three years. Now it’s back. Will the company’s new plans spawn another year-long wonder like the Pixel Slate?
One of the biggest tablet news of the show was that Google really got back into tablet app development. The company announced it would provide tablet interfaces for over 20 Google apps and showed screenshots for most of them. Tablet versions of Google Play, YouTube, Google Maps, Chrome and a host of other heavyweights were all on display. Google has even hired some third parties to create Android tablet apps, including Facebook, Zoom, and TikTok. All of this will make the Android tablet experience worth investing in.
Google also announced a new tablet, the Pixel Tablet, which is slated for release in the very distant date of “sometime in 2023.” It’s a big-looking, widescreen tablet, and regular phone apps don’t look good on it. I’m speculating here, but the Pixel Tablet looks cheap. I don’t say that as disparaging of the product; I mean it seems aimed to compete more with Amazon Fire tablets than iPads.
The product only received a 30-second teaser on Google I/O, but Google showed what appears to be a thicker tablet, which is usually a hallmark of a cheaper device. The lone camera on the back looked like a cheap pinhole camera, and the back might even be plastic. If Google wanted to target the iPad, we probably would have seen a thinner design and a bunch of accessories like the stylus and keyboard.
It would make sense to look for the Fire tablet. They are the most popular (forked) Android tablets on the market. Given Google’s immature tablet ecosystem, it would be easier to woo people with a cheaper product than to charge a premium outright. This wouldn’t be new either, as the Nexus 7 range defined budget tablets for a number of years until Google lost interest.
Google’s presentation also fitted perfectly with the rumor that the company’s next “smart display” would be a detachable tablet. The last thing the teaser showed was a set of pogo pins that could be for a smart display dock. Google also highlighted the Google Nest camera’s smart home support, which is currently a smart display feature. The docked smart display mode is something the Fire tablets are doing today and gives more credence to the idea that Google is trying to compete with Amazon’s products.
So far, it looks like Google is trying to get back what it threw away shortly after Honeycomb’s release. The company released a tablet-centric update to Android back in March – Android 12L – but that was a lot less ambitious than the Honeycomb version. Android 13 continues with a little more tablet work.
The rise of foldable devices has also changed the market and these devices require tablet apps to work well. If people with flagship Android phones suddenly have devices that open to tablets, the tablet app market would be much stronger. Assuming the foldable future is real, more and more devices will demand big-screen app designs, even as the standalone Android tablet fills up.