Android 12 isn’t even out yet, but we should already be talking about Android 12.1, a controversial release that is believed to arrive shortly after Android 12 and the Pixel 6 hit the market. Current thinking is that Google is working on a pair of Samsung-style foldable Pixel phones, which would ship with a smaller Android release. These are expected – perhaps – before the end of the year, taking into account development time and chip shortages.
There’s nothing official about the name “Android 12.1”, but the puzzle pieces here aren’t hard to put together. Every Android release gets an API level for app developers. Unlike the marketing-controlled version number, the API level is designed to be predictable and increases by “1” for each new platform release, regardless of the size of each release. Android 12 is “API level 31”, but Android 13 – due out around this time next year – was recently upgraded to API level 33 in the Android public repository. Google has made a space between Android 12 and 13 for a new release. Everyone unofficially calls that release “Android 12.1,” following the naming conventions for maintenance releases that Google last used with Android 8.1, which was released in December 2017.
So what’s in Android 12.1? Foldable stuff. Mishaal Rahman from XDA Developers has a hands-on with some early code, detailing a ton of tablet and folding features. We want to emphasize the “early” part of that “early code” description, because everything looks like terrible, but we’re here now for functionality, not design.
Like the good (and quickly abandoned) Android tablet interfaces of yore, Android 12.1 sees Google return to dual-pane layouts for different parts of the OS interface. The settings screen is back to a two-pane configuration, with the top-level settings list on the left and each individual settings page on the right. The notification shade takes a similar approach, with the quick settings on the left and the normal notifications list on the right.
All of these dual-pane interfaces use a 50/50 split, which is very different from how Google did things. Google’s first attempt at a larger Android interface was in Android 3.0 Honeycomb, which was designed for widescreen tablets. Honeycomb had something close to a 33/66 split for app layouts, usually a slimmer navigation panel on the left and a larger content area on the right. This new design emulates the split screen layout mode for apps, with a right-down-the-middle 50/50 split. Each screenshot is just two phone interfaces side by side.
XDA’s sample screenshots use a Galaxy Fold 3 aspect ratio, which is currently our best guess for what a foldable Pixel will look like. The thing is, the Fold seems way too wide for the design happening here. If Google uses two phone interfaces side by side, it seems that the correct aspect ratio for it is twice as wide as a normal phone. The Fold 3 is wider than that, which raises the standard Android problem of it looking ugly on wide devices.
This 50/50 design has the advantage of keeping contents out of the hinge area, which usually has a ditch or bump in it that can interrupt your swipe finger. That layout is just extremely limiting on how wide you can make a device because the wider it gets, the uglier Android looks.
Google’s leaked dock interface is also here. The screenshots all have a pinned black bar at the bottom of the screen, making for a hybrid of the iPad’s new dock UI and the old Honeycomb bar. Of course, everything may change eventually, but for now the icons at the bottom seem to be your recent apps. It would also be nice to be able to pin apps to this bar. The dock, assuming it doesn’t auto-hide, will cut the vertical real estate apps they can access. Vertical space is a big issue for apps on foldables right now, especially if you’re not in side-by-side app mode.
Recent apps also get some work done. In addition to the usual scrolling list of thumbnails, one row high, there is now a mode where thumbnails can be two rows high, so you can see more than one app. The screenshot actually shows one large app and then two rows of smaller apps.
There is also more work being done around app pairing (shortcuts that launch two apps at the same time) and split screen app mode, which now has a new divider. Again, everything is very early and ugly, but it seems that Google wants to replicate curved screen edges on the dock and the app bar with split screen. Similar to the 50/50 app split, this is a design that could be looks good on a very specific phone design with similar rounded corners. But for Android, which has to live on a million different devices, this design seems strangely restrictive.
Again, we have to emphasize that these are very early things, and we haven’t even seen the Android 12 release yet. Google still has a few months to figure everything out and make it look good.
List image by Ron Amadeo