Android 12.1 leak shows iPad-style dock and dual-pane system UI

Android 12 is yet to come out, but we already have to talk about Android 12.1, a rumored one-off release that would presumably arrive shortly after Android 12 and Pixel 6 hit the market. the current thinking is that Google is working on a pair of Samsung-style folding Pixel phones, which would ship with a smaller version of Android. They are expected to come out, perhaps, before the end of the year, allowing for development time and chip shortages.

There is nothing official about the name “Android 12.1”, but the pieces of the puzzle here are not difficult to fit. Each version of Android gets an API level for application developers. Unlike the version number controlled by marketing, the API level is designed to be predictable and increases “1” for each new version of the platform, regardless of the size of each version. Android 12 is “API level 31”, but Android 13, which will be released next year, was recently hit at API level 33 in the Android public repository. Google made a space between Android 12 and 13 for a new version. Everyone unofficially calls that version “Android 12.1”, following the naming conventions of the maintenance version that Google last used. Android 8.1, which was released in December 2017.

So what’s in Android 12.1? Foldable things. XDA Developers Mishaal Rahman has some hands-on experience with some initial codes, detailing a ton of foldable-focused tablets and features. We want to emphasize the “early” part of that “early code” description, because everything appearance horrible, but we’re here for the functionality, not the design, right now.

Like the good (and quickly abandoned) Android tablet interfaces of yesteryear, Android 12.1 brings Google back to dual-pane layouts for various bits of the operating system interface. The setup screen returns to a dual-pane setup, which has the top-level setup list on the left and each individual setup page on the right. The notification panel takes a similar approach, with the quick settings on the left and the normal list of notifications on the right.

All of these dual pane interfaces use a 50/50 split, which is very different from the way Google used to do things. Google’s first change to a larger Android interface was in Android 3.0 Honeycomb, and it was designed for widescreen tablets. Honeycomb had a close to 33/66 split for app layouts, typically a thinner navigation panel on the left and a larger content area on the right. This new layout emulates the app layout split screen mode, with a 50/50 split in the middle. Each screenshot is just two phone interfaces side by side.

The XDA example screenshots use a Galaxy Fold 3 aspect ratio, which is currently our best guess for what a foldable Pixel will look like. The thing is, the Fold seems too wide for the layout that’s happening here. If Google is using two phone interfaces side by side, it sure looks like the correct aspect ratio would be twice the width of a normal phone. The Fold 3 is wider than that, which raises the standard Android problem that it looks ugly on wide devices.

This 50/50 design has the advantage of keeping content out of the hinge area, which usually has a ditch or bulge that can interrupt finger gliding. That design is extremely limiting in terms of how wide a device can make, as the wider it gets, the uglier Android looks.

Google’s leaked dock interface is here too. All screenshots have a black bar affixed to the bottom of the screen, making it a hybrid of the new iPad dock UI and the old Honeycomb bar. Of course, everything could change eventually, but for now, the icons at the bottom appear to be your recent apps. Being able to pin apps to this bar would be nice too. The dock, assuming it is not automatically hidden, will cut off the vertical real estate applications they have access to. The vertical space is currently A big problem for folding applications, especially when not in parallel application mode.

Recent apps are working too. In addition to the usual scrolling thumbnail list, one row high, there is now a mode where thumbnails can be two rows high, allowing you to view more than one app. Actually the screenshot shows one large app and then two rows of smaller apps.

More work is also being done around app pairs (shortcuts that launch two apps at the same time) and split screen app mode, which now has a new splitter. Again, it’s all very early and ugly, but it seems like Google wants to replicate the curved screen edges in the split-screen dock and app bar. As with the 50/50 application split, this is a design that could look good on a very specific phone design with similarly rounded corners. But for Android, which has to live on a million different devices, this design seems strangely restrictive.

Again, we must emphasize that this is a very early thing, and we haven’t even seen Android 12 launch yet. Google still has a few months to figure it out and make it look good.

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