Why did Google bring Android tablets back to the Pixel Tablet?

Phones are boring, so Google is bringing Android tablets back. One of the most surprising announcements at Google I/O yesterday was the company’s recommitment to Android tablet software, with the Pixel Tablet coming into production in 2023.

As recently as 2019, though, Google said it was no longer making Android tablets, and the company’s Android tablet software has been pretty weak for too long. While iPads and Microsoft Windows tablets tend to have software designed for larger screens, Android apps that run on tablets feel like stretched phone interfaces, with plenty of white space and little thought about how to use the tablet’s real estate to the best purpose.

Yes, there is a market for Android tablets. Globally, Samsung, Lenovo, Honor and Amazon sell nearly as many tablets together as Apple does with iPads, according to IDC.(Opens in a new window). But it is a slow growing and largely mature market.

So what’s really new here? Google hinted at the change during I/O. It’s about foldable phones, and a bit about 5G.

“Foldable devices offer all the benefits of a big screen device with the portability of a phone…This year we’ve worked hard to make Android tablets amazing,” Google Vice President of Engineering Trystan Upstill said at I/O.

Enter the real phablet

Years ago, we called big phones “phablets,” saying they had tablet-like screens. Yesterday’s phablets are today’s mainstream phones. It turns out that they don’t need a real rethink of the interface, as long as they remain essentially one-handed devices.

But foldable phones unfold to 7, 8, or even 9-inch screens. They’re as big, or even bigger, than Google’s most popular and successful tablet, the 2013 Nexus 7, so they’re clamoring for a fresh approach to the interface.

Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3

And at the moment, these interfaces are a mess. Samsung, Oppo, Huawei and others are rolling out custom foldable user interfaces and apps, threatening to fragment the Android world and shifting power from Google. Google needed to do something about this.

Tablets were a high-end product in the 2000s. They are now, really, as boring as tablet-style phones. Thus, the Pixel Tablet cannot be understood as a competitor to the iPad (yawn), but as a development platform for future applications to run on unfolded folds.

Well, you ask, why is Google releasing the Pixel Tablet and not its rumored foldable phone? By teasing the Pixel 7 in late 2022 and into the 2023 tablet, Google was giving a strong signal that the Pixel Fold was off the agenda for now.

Google isn’t really a big mobile maker compared to the big operators, and I suspect that in an era of supply shortages, they haven’t been able to get the parts to make the Pixel Fold work at a price people can afford. The tablet, on the other hand, feels like a relatively common device wrapped around Google’s software and the Tensor chip — ideal as a development platform for other Google partners’ foldable experiences.

Oppo Find Inn

Pete Lau from Oppo showcases the Find N foldable phone.

How 5G plays a role

We can even bring all this back to 5G, thanks to the experience I had in Korea in early 2020.

Let’s say 5G actually offers considerably better network bandwidth. It’s happening, much slower than we expected.

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There are some 5G apps that can really change the way we use smaller phones — split view and real-time access to cloud storage come to mind. But we’re still years away from 5G networks being good enough for those things.

Big-screen video calls, true 1080p video streaming, and high-quality game streaming require slightly better bandwidth than US 4G networks typically provide, and the shortcomings become noticeable on large foldable screens and a tablet. You can hide a lot of video flaws on a six-inch screen that becomes visible when your screen is eight inches or larger.

I saw it when making a video call on the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold in Korea, two years ago — and then COVID set and turned our attention to home computers.

Mobile operators want to sell new 5G subscriptions. Mobile device makers want to sell premium phones. Google’s return to “tablets” will make that easier to achieve by making foldable devices less heavy, less cranky, and easier to develop for.

With any luck, that will provide some great foldable phones later this year.

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