Microsoft has been updating the software consistently on both the original Surface Duo and the improved Surface Duo 2. This has led to a renaissance in the critical reception of the Duo 2 in particular. Microsoft’s Surface Duo, along with the Android tablet and foldable market, is about to get a significant software boost with the upcoming launch of Android 12L; a version of Android focused on offering better support for tablets, split-screen and larger-screened devices.
This week we can see the benefits of Google’s focus on this part of the Android ecosystem with the launch of the latest beta of GBoard, Google’s keyboard for Android devices.
Let’s use the Surface Duo family as an example of the benefits of Android 12L, not least because it has been confirmed Android 12L will be coming to the Duo.
Microsoft’s choice to build an Android device with two screens sets it apart from the usual ribbon-based stream of information found on smartphones, with it spiritually closer to tablets than phones. Unfortunately, the various implementations of Android apps for tablets did not consider the idea there would be two screens, with a physical bar separating them.
That has left many apps that span the two Surface Duo screens looking broken, and almost unusable. Naturally, Microsoft’s own apps made some smart choices, such as Outlook putting the inbox list on one side and the body text in the other side. But Gmail ignored the black bar in the middle, leaving a hanging box of partial text.
This leads us to Google’s GBoard. The current beta is offering a new ‘thumb type’ keyboard which groups your keyboard to one side of the screen so you can use a single thumb to reach all the keys and type away. You also have the option to group two halves of the keyboard to each side of the screen, so you can easily type with your two thumbs able to reach all the letters.
The former is a nice option on a portrait-based smartphones screen, especially with the trend of larger screens. The benefits of the latter are felt in devices with wider screens, and yes, devices with two screens like the Surface Duo and Surface Duo 2.
Would Google have programmed this specifically for Microsoft’s Surface Duo devices? Unlikely. After all, they never tweaked Gmail for the Duo, so why would they do so with its keyboard? This is the power of Android 12L. Rather than focus on one specific manufacturer or handset, 12L focuses on the environment of (L)arger Android devices.
Now there is an addressable market, there is value for Google in creating a unified space for manufacturers, developers, and consumers, to work in. While there will always be differences between manufacturers (I don’t see Microsoft not shipping Switfkey in the Surface Duo platform), Google now feels that there is enough of a base to create a consistent base.
That’s going to benefit every manufacturer in the space by creating consistent expectations by consumers, but more importantly, consistent expectations by developers. In the vast sprawling space of folds, bi-folds, trifles, multi-screens, and other form factors yet to be launched, developers have the consistency they need to deliver the best apps possible.
The Surface Duo’s two screens will benefit from a much wider and more compatible range of applications, just as every device running Android 12L will see the benefit of better ties into the Android ecosystem.