Google just released a tool that will breathe new life into your favorite apps

Samsung Galaxy Tab S7
Samsung Galaxy Tab S7 (Image credit: Joe Maring / Android Central)

Google's developer team loves to make tools to use with Android Studio and show off how they work. The development of Kotlin and Android Jetpack libraries has changed the way a lot of developers who write the non-Google apps we love work. But its newest tool might be one of the best yet, specifically when it comes to apps for "big screens".

A big screen can mean a lot of things, but in this case, we're talking about tablets and Chromebooks. It's no secret that even the best Android tablets or the best Chromebooks all suffer from one of Android's biggest flaws: plenty of apps look really bad or just don't work as they should once you move past a phone screen.

A big part of the reason for that is that Android apps are usually resizable to infinity — really, you can sideload apps onto a huge television with the right Android TV box, and most work. They just look very ugly, and oftentimes the controls either aren't available or aren't where they should be. You would think that this would be a good thing, but it means that apps developed on a phone really only work well on phones. The extra real estate offered by a tablet or a Chromebook or even a foldable like the Galaxy Z Fold 2 is wasted space.

Many Android apps can resize and work, just not very well.

Jetpack Compose, Android Developers' latest tool, just might be able to fix that. Jetpack libraries are like plugins for Android Studio that provide a quick and easier way to do mundane, repetitive tasks that have to be done if you want to build an Android app. They allow you to incorporate new code into existing APIs, as well as provide new APIs that a developer can use without writing a ton of code from scratch. But Jetpack Compose is a little bit different.

Anyone interested in writing apps for Android should definitely watch the whole video as well as check out The Android Show website for more information. Most of us won't be designing Android apps, but it's still a good watch if you're interested in Android's future.

Jetpack Compose was designed to do only one thing — make building an app's interface a lot easier.

Nerdy things aside, Jetpack Compose is pretty simple to explain: it makes building great-looking apps for every Android device easier and simpler. It's a design tool used to lay out the look and feel of an app that is still extendable to any screen size. It's a completely new framework and way of building the interface of an app.

Instead of writing a ton of code to design your app for phones, more code for when users rotate or unfold their phone, and even more heaps of code for apps on larger screens, Compose writes and incorporates that code for developers. It's fully interoperable with all existing Android code, so updating an app to use it won't be a lot of extra work.

How it works is the coolest part. Karen Ng, director of product management at Google describes it like this:

With a fully declarative approach, you just describe your UI, and Compose takes care of the rest. As an app's state changes, the UI automatically updates making it a lot simpler to build the new UI quickly. From the demo we've seen so far from developers like Lyft, it looks like Compose lives up to the promises. Alex Lockwood, an Android developer for Lyft said it was easy and fun. How often does a developer say redesigning an app is fun?

Jetpack Compose Android Studio Interface

Source: Alex Lockwood / YouTube (Image credit: Source: Alex Lockwood / YouTube)

I think most of us are really excited when we are given something that makes our job easier. That's what Jetpack Compose does for Android app developers. It's the kind of automation that can help fill the app gap on Chromebooks using Android as well as make apps more fluid and responsive on tablets — something Google hasn't been thinking about for a long time. And near the very end of the Compose live stream, Google VP of engineering Dav Burke said foldables are a focus for 2021 and that he thinks about Android on tablets and Chromebooks "a lot".

Compose is in a "stable beta" right now and ready for any developer to try.

Right now Jetpack Compose is in what Kari Byron (yes, that Kari Byron) calls a very stable beta with everything working. You can use it today if you're a developer who isn't worried about trying beta development tools. Besides, if it's as stable as Google thinks, it shouldn't be too long before it's out of beta.

As cool as it is to see Kari from Mythbusters working with Google, seeing a tool that can help developers build great app layouts for phones, foldable, tablets, and Chromebooks simultaneously is even cooler.

Jerry Hildenbrand
Senior Editor — Google Ecosystem

Jerry is an amateur woodworker and struggling shade tree mechanic. There's nothing he can't take apart, but many things he can't reassemble. You'll find him writing and speaking his loud opinion on Android Central and occasionally on Twitter.

6 Comments
  • I’m just gonna be honest: Who cares? Google has provided software to help devs in the past to make tablet and larger screen apps. It didn’t work. One of the reasons is because google didn’t make these strict rules in the first place. If they had forced devs to make separate apps in a manner similar to Apple, this situation wouldn’t have become the large mess it has. Another reason for the tablet app situation is that Google gave up. The second they stopped making tablet designed apps, the rest of the community followed suit. If the maker of the OS doesn’t care, why should they? Third, Google relies on its hardware OEMs far too much. Instead of taking a wait and see approach, they should’ve have been more willing to take a lose by making flagship tablets consistently. Giving up at the first sign of trouble was a mistake. The Nexus 9 and Pixel C are evidence of that. Finally, the biggest issue is Google itself.
    They simply haven’t proven they actually care about Android as an OS, only what it can do as a delivery system for their core products: Gmail, Chrome, Maps, and YouTube. Android users in general might actually be better served by Samsung holding stewardship of the Android OS. At the very least their desire to match and challenge Apple on nearly every front hardware-wise would ensure features like a tablet oriented UI didn’t fall by the wayside. The sad, horrible, and ironic truth is, the Apple line of products are becoming the best Google devices. If and when Apple allows Maps and Siri to be replaced with Google Maps and G Assistant...... the reasons for owning an Android phone will shrink even further.
  • I honestly reckon it would've just ended up in Android on tablets being even worse. All blown up phone apps like running iPhones apps on iPads. I agree but I just think forcing requirements wouldn't have meant all that many tablet apps. Maybe though it would've gone other way, because they had no incentive and many developers are lazy if they can get away with it. Developers just didn't seem all that interested because iPads blew up and they were already having enough of headache supporting hundreds of Android phones, all a bit different.
  • Good point about Google not caring about Android as a platform, like you say it serves as their platform to deliver services. Can't say I agree iPhones are a better platform for Google services. ChromeOS still offers pinnacle Google. On phones I can say maps being allowed but not a chance Apple would allow Assistant to replace Siri. That's literally Google's data miner par excellence. I'm not sure I'd agree Google stopped developing their own tablet apps though. Most of their apps are optimized well for tablets. Few complaints from Google Apps on my Lenovo Duet. They did give up though agreed but for another reason, Google only ever released one tablet specific Android release (Lollipop) and pulled out of Android tablets entirely in 2015. You have to question why we're still even having a discussion about something Google themselves pulled out of in 2015 and even went as far as announcing they're pulling out of tablets entirely in 2019. Without OEMs there wouldn't be any Android or ChromeOS tablet platforms period. TBH it's only the likes of Android Central still banging on about this. Google's moved on to phones and laptops. ChromeOS laptops are their focus now and they are even still updating ChromeOS for tablets. The Lenovo Duet was very well received. Android Central need to realise it's the lower end of the market where Android tablets are now at. The Amazon Fire tablets, Lenovo Duets of the world. Devices so cheap you accept they're not perfect, but they certainly work well enough.
  • Sounds like a great idea! Can't wait for all the big apps to completely ignore it and keep doing things the exact same way!
  • Facebook can't even manage split screen in their Facebook Messenger app on Android tablets. Super simple to implement, but nope. It's literally the only platform Facebook hasn't done this. Urgh. At least Spotify after years and years finally updated their Spotify app last year for better tablet support.
  • Isn’t this too little far too late? Existing apps aren’t going to rewrite their functioning UI layers with this new framework. Am I missing something?