Google’s first Android tablet should have been an exciting announcement. Instead, most people who have spent time with the device found that its defining feature was the mismatch between what the tablet should be capable of and what its software actually supports. The upshot? Google has its work cut out for them as they try to introduce better tablet functionality with next year’s major Android release, Android N.
As The Cheat Sheet reported recently, most reviewers were disappointed by the Pixel C. While some found things to like in the hardware and all of the design work that went into it, most pointed to rookie mistakes that Google made with the usability of the device. Thanks to the total absence of any split screen or multitasking support in Android, plus Google’s long-standing neglect of any effort to nurture an ecosystem of tablet-optimized apps, the Pixel C can’t stand up to Windows or even to Chrome OS for the productivity tasks at which it’s supposed to excel.
Even though Google just rolled out a new version of Android — Android 6.0 Marshmallow — the software still has a long way to go if it’s going to become a useful and competitive platform for tablets. Because most tablet apps for Android aren’t really optimized for larger screen sizes, they’re basically just larger versions of smartphone apps. And Google’s choice to not add any split screen or multitasking ability to the operating system seems a strange decision, especially as the Pixel C needs to compete with devices like the iPad or Surface.
It’s a mistake that Google is going to try to fix with next year’s Android release, Android N. As Sam Byford reports for The Verge, the team behind Google’s first tablet is fully aware of the concerns about Android’s productivity functionality, or lack thereof. The Pixel C team used a Reddit AMA to discuss how Android will improve in the future — even if users have to wait until Android’s next major version to see the changes in action.
“We’re working hard on a range of enhancements for Android in this form factor,” Android and Chrome UX director Glen Murphy explained on the company’s plans to improve the operating system.
“There are many things, like multi-window, that we’ve been spending a lot of time on — hopefully we can share more about this soon.” Consumer hardware director Andrew Bowers added, “We’re working on lots of things right now for N that, of course, we wish we had, you know, yesterday. But we’d spoil the surprise of N if we shared all of them. Split screen is in the works!”
The fact that Google is just now working to incorporate multitasking features into Android illustrates that its platform is well behind those of its competitors. Windows tablets have enabled users to put two apps on the screen since Microsoft released Windows 8 in 2012, and Apple added similar split screen functionality to iPads running iOS 9 this year. Google hasn’t yet provided native support for multitasking features in its operating system, though some equipment manufacturers like Samsung have layered their own multitasking system on top of Android. The problem with that solution is that app support has been largely absent.
That’s the same problem that shapes the assortment of apps available for Android tablets. Google has never emphasized the concept of tablet-optimized apps in its communications with the many developers who create apps for its app store, so many developers simply use automatic layouts to expand the user interfaces built for smartphones to a tablet’s larger screen size.
It’s a problem that Google is working to address. “We’re spending a lot of time working with developers to get better and more awesome tablet apps,” Murphy told Reddit users. “But it is definitely a chicken-egg problem, and we think a key driver is awesome hardware, like the Pixel C.” The mixed reception of the tablet makes it obvious that software is a real problem for Android, as the tablet can’t support all of the functionality that users have come to expect from a tablet.
The pressure is on for Google to make some major changes with Android N. But in the meantime, Android fans who would really like a productivity-focused Android tablet are stuck waiting in limbo for Google to do something about the operating system’s disappointing performance on larger screens.