Google’s past failures were on full display at I/O 2022

Enlarge / It wasn’t a real Google I/O 2022 slide, but it could have been.

Google / Ron Amadeo

Google held its I/O conference earlier this month, and to longtime Google watchers, the event felt like a session. Google CEO Sundar Pichai took to the stage for his keynote address and channeled the spirit of long-dead Google products. “I hear…something about an Android tablet? What about a smartwatch?” he seemed to say.

By my reckoning, “reviving the past” accounted for about half of the company’s major announcements. In all of these cases, Google would be in a much stronger position had it committed to a long-term plan and continuously iterated on that plan.

Unfortunately, the company lacks this kind of top-down direction. Instead, for most resurrected products, Google is trying to catch up with competitors after years of standing still. There’s a question we have to ask for every announcement: “Will things be different this time?”

Android tablets are back

How long have Android tablets been dead? Some companies, like Samsung, never gave up on the idea, but Google’s last piece of tablet hardware was the Pixel C in 2015. The Android tablet UI has been gone for a while. Its development culminated with the initial release of Android 3.0 Honeycomb in 2011, and each subsequent Android release and Google app update watered down the tablet’s interface until it was gone. App developers took Google’s neglect as a sign that they should stop making Android tablets as well, and the ecosystem collapsed.

After the release of Pixel C in 2015, Google exited the tablet market for three years and then released the Pixel Slate Chrome-OS tablet. It then exited the tablet market for another three years. Now it’s back. Will the company’s new plans produce another one-year-old wonder like the Pixel Slate?

Some of the biggest tablet news from the show was that Google is getting back into tablet app development. The company said it would bring tablet interfaces to more than 20 Google apps, and it showed screenshots for most of them. Tablet versions of Google Play, YouTube, Google Maps, Chrome and many other heavy hitters were all on display. Google has even hired third parties to build apps for Android tablets, including Facebook, Zoom and TikTok. All of these will help make the Android tablet experience something worth investing in.

Google also announced a new tablet, the Pixel Tablet, which is slated for release in the very distant date of “somewhere in 2023”. This is a large, widescreen tablet, and regular phone apps won’t look good on it. I’m speculating here, but the Pixel tablet looks cheap. I don’t say this as an affront to the product; I mean it seems to be aimed more at competing with Amazon Fire tablets than iPads.

The product only received a 30-second teaser on Google I/O, but Google showed off what looks like a thicker tablet, which is usually the mark of a cheaper device. The single camera on the back looked like a cheap pinhole camera, and the back could even be plastic. If Google had wanted to target the iPad, we probably would have seen a slimmer design and a stack of accessories, like a pen and keyboard.

Going after the Fire tablet would make sense. These are the most popular (forked) Android tablets on the market. Given Google’s immature tablet ecosystem, it would be easier to win people over with a cheaper product than to charge a premium upfront. That wouldn’t be new either, as the Nexus 7 range defined cheap tablets for a few years until Google lost interest.

Google’s presentation also perfectly matched the rumor that the company’s next “smart display” would be a detachable tablet. The last thing the teaser showed was a set of pogo pins, which could be for a smart docking station. Google also pushed smart home support for the Google Nest camera, which is currently a smart display feature. Docked Smart Display Mode is something Fire tablets do today, lending more credence to the idea that Google wants to compete with Amazon’s products.

All of this work so far feels like Google is trying to reclaim what it threw away shortly after Honeycomb was released. The company already released a tablet-centric update for Android in March – Android 12L – but it was far less ambitious than the Honeycomb version. Android 13 will continue with a bit more tablet work.

The rise of foldables has also changed the market, and these devices need tablet apps to work well. If people with flagship Android phones suddenly had devices that opened up to tablets, the market for tablet apps would be much stronger. Assuming the foldable future really happens, more and more devices will demand big-screen app designs, even if the standalone Android tablet is completely empty.

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