Google cares about apps for the big screen again but still needs to convince developers
It takes a village.
For most of us, Google I/O 2022 was all about the product announcements. We're consumers and we like to spend our money on tech gadgets like phones, tablets, and smartwatches. But Google I/O is, and always has been, a developer conference.
Google takes its time in the spotlight to show off consumer-facing things to keep us interested, but the majority of time is spent showing off the improvements and new tools that developers use to build Android apps. Apps are what make a software platform like Android viable, after all. Rest in peace, Windows Phone, BlackBerry, WebOS, and all the rest.
There was a theme throughout most of the core development sessions in 2022 and it was about writing and optimizing apps for bigger screens. Whether Google was showing just how "easy" it is to build the right interface for the right size screen or how a developer can leverage the larger footprint, Google really pushed the tablet and foldable angle in 2022.
We will even see a Pixel Tablet sometime in 2023 to drive the point home. It seems that after a hiatus, Google cares about apps for the big screen again.
Try and try again
Google never really stopped caring about apps on larger screens but it sure seemed that way. While most of us think of an Android tablet when we mention a big screen device, to Google that device was a Chromebook. Or even a Chrome tablet.
Chrome OS devices run Android apps as well or better than any phone or tablet and they share the same difficulties and issues when it comes to using an app made for a phone-sized display on something built bigger. For the most part, Android apps work on a Chromebook but they don't always work well or look great.
Google did try to address this; the company even released an overpriced Chrome Tablet in the Pixel Slate so developers could spend too much money to "fix" app issues that nobody was experiencing. You see, Android is king when it comes to phones — about 80% of the world's smartphones are Android. But when you compare the sheer numbers you have very few people buying Android tablets or running Android apps on a Chromebook.
Developers should take the time necessary to make most of their end-users satisfied with their work. That means spending time and money refining a smartphone app. Everyone reading this has an app on their phone they use a lot, and like what the developer has done with it. Every app developer, big or small, wants to be the person(s) behind that app you love.
I can hear some folks thinking right now: "What about foldables?" Well, what about them?
They're cool and probably will be the future of the smartphone once they can be mass-produced at affordable prices. That time may be close at hand but until then folding phones, whether they flip, flop, fold, or roll, are not driving the Android app ecosystem. The cheap and plain slab of glass is still the smartphone market for most of the world and most of the developers in it.
Is a Pixel Tablet enough?
I dunno. That's the million-dollar question, isn't it? If I were to guess I would say that a Pixel Tablet won't change a thing when it comes to developers taking bigger screens more seriously. It might serve as a teaching tool for Google, which is great, but the 2023 Pixel Tablet is too little too late. For it to have any chance to make a difference, it needed to come three years ago.
Developers can already buy a great tablet from Samsung if they want to work on optimizing for larger screens, which means consumers can also buy a great tablet. They even come at several price points to work for almost anybody that wants one. The Galaxy Tab S series may be the best Android tablet, but there are plenty of others to choose from, too.
Another alternative is for Google to become heavy-handed, piss off all of its hardware partners, alienate a portion of its users, and force developers to build special tablet and foldable apps. That's ugly and drastic, but it works — the iPad proves it.
Google is not Apple and wouldn't get away with doing it as easily, though. Apple holds a relatively low market share and this lets it slide around anti-competition legislation when compared to Google. Apple is also Apple's only hardware customer so there will be no blowback from phone manufacturers.
Google really can't do what Apple did when it made the iPad ecosystem work the way it does.
We can fix it and we will
What will work is our wallets. Application developers will always try to build things we like well enough to use every day. That's what they should be doing, really. Building apps and writing software only sounds like an easy way to make a living if you've never done it, and the saying about working smarter not harder says devs should worry about the products most of us are using.
Today, those products are regular "small" screen smartphones. Some are cheap, some are absurdly expensive, but they all are smaller devices with similar aspect ratios and designed to be used in only two orientations.
One day that may change — I think it will — and we'll be using phones that fold or flip open into tablets or tablets that fold into phones or some combination we haven't seen yet. The convenience is already there and you can have a device that's easy to carry around or use on the subway as well as one that works great for watching videos on the couch, and it's actually the same device.
Phone makers care about the foldable market and eventually we will all see one we want to buy. This will make it easy for a developer to care about optimizing his or her app for a larger screen because that's what everyone is using.
Let's hope Google is ready for that when the time comes.
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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.