Android Intelligence Analysis

Android 12 and the 'Android Pixel' era

Google's latest Android version is an ambitious new beginning — at least, for one small slice of the Android platform pie.

Android 12, Google Pixel
Google/JR Raphael

Android Intelligence Analysis

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Google's Android 12 software has technically been around for a while — since February, in fact, when its first developer preview release plopped out into this musty virtual world. This week, though, we're getting our clearest look yet at what Google's next great Android version is actually all about.

At a jam-packed online I/O convention, Google officially pulled back the curtain on Android 12 with the launch of its first public beta offering. And goodness gracious, is there a lot to digest about what's changing with this saucy little operating system of ours.

For the first time in quite a few years, the biggest evolution of all for Android is right on the surface: Android 12 introduces a sweeping reimagining of the entire system interface, with a whole new design language and a wildly different look and feel for the platform. It feels like the most significant shake-up to Android's appearance since the launch of Android 5.0, Lollipop, way back in 2014 — and it's no wonder: That was the first Android version to feature Google's Material Design standard, and this release is the first to use an updated take on that visual language called Material You.

To say that Material You is a fresh coat of paint would be one heck of an understatement. This is Android, all right, but it's kind of like Android on some super-mellow mood enhancers. Everything feels lighter, fluffier, rounder, and more fluid. Colors work in different ways. You notice the effect of light and shadows in ways that were never apparent before. (All right, so maybe it's something a teensy bit stronger than a mere mood enhancer. But you get the idea.)

And here's the kicker to it all: The dramatic new design and all the improvements around it — including a clever theming system that pulls complementary colors from your wallpaper and then creates a custom system-wide palette that stretches across the entire Android experience — won't be available on just any phone running the Android operating system. Nope: It'll be available in its entirety only on Google's own self-made Pixel devices.

The idea of Android features revolving around Pixels is nothing new, of course. Some of the most inventive and impressive Assistant-related advancements of recent years, like Google's automated call-screening system and call-holding genie, launched as Pixel-only affairs and remain that way today. Other features, like the more capable new version of Assistant introduced in 2019, were initially described as coming to Pixel phones "first" — but, well, nearly two years later, they're still mostly just on Pixel phones. And more and more software-driven camera improvements and Photos capabilities are coming out only for Pixel owners, too, at least to start.

This, though — this feels different. As opposed to the typical tacked-on features or relatively minor visual choices we've seen get limited to Pixels in the past, this current Pixel exclusive is essentially the core interface of Android. It's the software's very identity and how you see and interact it. As Google itself put it on its official @Android and @Google Twitter accounts, it's a rethinking of the "entire experience" of what Android's like to use.

And the implications actually stretch even further than just your phone: Google says your custom design choices on Android will at some point travel with your account across every app and type of device you use — eventually applying to Google apps on the web as well as to Chromebooks, Smart Displays, and Wear-based wearables. This is a Google ecosystem move. And the Pixel, it seems, could be the sole smartphone product to tie into that new cross-platform thread.

In a way, it feels like an overdue recognition of the fact that device-makers like Samsung are gonna muck things up on Android with all sorts of change for the sake of change, anyway — so why bother pretending that isn't the case? Outside of an increasingly small handful of niche-level devices, Google's own Android software design has largely been a Pixel-specific entity for a while now. Even long-time Android One partner Nokia seems to be inching away from that program's promises and its commitment to the standard Android interface. So in a weird way, maybe it makes sense to go ahead and say that out loud and make the limited availability of Android's core design a Pixel feature instead of a Google liability.

What's especially interesting is that even within Android, the effects of this will stretch beyond the actual system interface and apply even to the experience of using apps — Google's apps, to start, and eventually any others that decide to support the new standard. The Android 12 theming system will change the way those apps look, and signs suggest at least some core Google tools, such as Gboard, are also being prepped for Pixel-specific foundational redesigns to match the new Android 12 aesthetic. That essentially means Google is specializing the Android experience even further and on a deeper level for Pixel users, while everyone else will be on a separate path.

To be fair, we don't know for sure at this point what, exactly, Android 12 will end up looking like on non-Pixel phones. Other device-makers could conceivably choose to emulate some of the same concepts, and Google could ultimately decide to offer at least some of them up in other environments. (I reached out to ask Google explicitly how this might play out, and thus far, I haven't gotten an answer.) In an officially provided "first look" at the software over at The Verge, however, it's unambiguously noted that "the new elements in Android 12 are Google’s specific implementations of those principles on Pixel phones" and that "other phones might implement those principles differently or maybe even not at all."

So for now, at least, it sure seems like the software's primary purpose is to provide an exceptional and exceptionally distinctive user experience specifically for Google's Pixel phones. One could say the same about other recent Android releases, of course, but none has been anywhere near as transformative or as deep-reaching as what we're seeing with Android 12.

Now more than ever, there's the Android experience — and then there's the Android Pixel experience. And that, my friend, is one hell of a philosophical and practical shift in what Android actually is and what the operating system represents.

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