In 2012 I had my first contact with the world of Android tablets. With a lot of effort I bought a Samsung Galaxy Tab; it was the 7-inch GT-P1010 model that only had WiFi connectivity. He preferred the version that could be equipped with a cell line, but it was impossible to get. After all, a long-standing problem in Argentina is that the supply of technology is limited, very expensive, and almost always arrives late.
But I had my tablet, I gave it its use —not what I expected, clearly— and at the time I relegated it to a drawer of some furniture. The lack of software updates disappointed me; that brick with Android 2.2.2 only upgraded to 2.3.6 after rooting it, getting the ROM and begging it to install without bricking it. Maybe it’s because of the little wear, but surprisingly it still works, if only for my 2-year-old daughter to watch some offline children’s videos.
After years of total disinterest, a few weeks ago I unexpectedly crossed paths with the world of Android tablets. A Samsung Galaxy Tab A7 Lite came into my hands; It goes without saying that it is not even remotely the most powerful or capable on the market, but for ordinary use it is more than fine. With an 8.7” screen, 3 GB of RAM, 32 GB of storage and Android 11, it’s enough for the intended use. We are talking about surfing the internet, checking emails and social networks, watching a video on YouTube, and not much else. As I said before, an absolutely conventional use.
But what really surprised me is how the lack of app optimization persists. I think I’m not wrong when I say that between the original Galaxy Tab and the A7 Lite, practically nothing has changed in the experience with the apps, even when between them there are almost 10 years of difference. And that is where the real problem lies that Google must attack, if it really believes that Android tablets are “the future of computing”, as it was recently known.
If Android tablets are the future of computing, apps must also do their part
Google announced last year that it will launch Android 12L, a version of its operating system dedicated to tablets and folding devices. The novelty caused surprise, not so much because of the foldables because they are the new trend in the mobile industry, but mainly because of the renewed interest in tablets. Let’s not forget that the last attempt of those from Mountain View with this form factor was the Pixel Slate of 2018, and the following year the company announced that it was throwing in the towel.
And in the realm strictly tied to software, there hasn’t been an effort dedicated exclusively to tablets since Honeycomb, version 3.0 of Android that was released in 2011 and had a very short life before merging its main features with the 4.0 edition of the OS ( Ice Cream Sandwich).
But despite the lack of interest that Google showed for years to optimize Android for use on tablets, some brands continued to insist on their developments. This has led to the most important efforts to offer an experience according to the circumstances fall on Samsung, Xiaomi or Lenovo. However, what users receive is not a homogeneous proposal, but dissimilar alternatives developed according to what each company believes is the best it can offer in its operating system customization layer (OneUI, MIUI, etc.), or with accessories such as keyboards or light pens.
But what these companies offer as the best possible experience on their Android tablets only impacts very specific questions; whether they are elements of the interface that run on the OS, or of the apps that are preinstalled (and that are often pure bloatware).
Meanwhile, the interaction with the applications of conventional use -which is what would surely interest most of the people who wanted to make the leap to Android tablets- continues to be fatal. It is only enough to browse Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to realize it. That in the middle of 2022 we are still dealing with stretched graphical interfaces from the mobile versions, or with completely deformed elements when going from portrait to landscape mode, is inconceivable. And that multitasking doesn’t work properly either, too.
In the middle of 2022, Facebook still shows bars on the sides when using a tablet in landscape mode
The lack of optimization goes hand in hand with the absence of a plan
It is clear that there has been no plan for the Android tablet market. There was never a roadmap that Google provided based on software—and followed with its own hardware—and other companies improved with their input. Each firm did what it could, some more successfully than others. Thus, as we already mentioned, premium efforts have been left in the hands of a very small handful of brands; meanwhile, the rest of the market has been saturated with cheap gadgets, with no features, powered by Android Go.
So it’s also understandable that developers choose not to optimize their apps for tablets. How to achieve a good performance in the face of such a heterogeneous proposal, after all? From Mountain View they promise that this will change from Android 12L; They even assure that modifications will be applied to the Play Store to harm the visibility of applications that are not optimized “for large screens”. Although not much has been explained about the parameters that will be taken into account.
It also gives the impression that companies have not yet decided which market to focus Android tablets on. Alternatives promoted for professional use are good, but fall short as definitive PC replacements; and the entry and intermediate ones lose their appeal because they are nothing more than smartphones that do not fit in the pocket of the pants. And the same —or very similar— can be said to happen with the iPad, where the software doesn’t finish taking advantage of the hardware; but here the difference is that the decisions about what to do or not with the device are purely and exclusively up to Apple.
Consistency will be key to the future of Android tablets
If Android tablets really are the future of computing, several factors must come together for it to come to fruition. First, that the operating system is really optimized for devices of that type; second, that the applications are truly prepared to take advantage of it, both aesthetically and functionally; and third, that conductive threads are drawn that make this factor a coherent alternative.
It doesn’t matter how big and fluid the screens are. Or how much storage space or processing power they have. If more than 10 years have passed since the first Android tablets arrived on the market and it is still not very well known what their purpose is, or how to improve them, it is evident that we cannot speak of evolution, but of an improvised and trodden path to the tumbles.