Android 12.1 will improve the foldable phone experience likely in preparation for the Pixel Fold

The next big update to Android is launching on October 4th according to a document reviewed by XDA. Android 12 will be the biggest Android OS update in years, bringing a complete redesign, a new theme engine, a one-handed mode, and much more. Because of how extensive the update is, it’s possible that Google ran out of time to add one or more planned features, pushing those features to the next release. We recently learned that Android’s next release could be a point update, but we weren’t sure why at the time. Now, we’ve learned a bit more about the features planned for the presumed Android 12.1 update, and they involve several enhancements to the foldable phone experience.

The Android 12 sc-v2 release, which we’re expecting will be called Android 12.1, will be improving upon a feature first seen in early Android 12 developer previews. In Android 12 Developer Preview 2, we enabled a hidden “taskbar” feature in the Pixel Launcher that appears at the bottom of the screen where the navigation bar normally resides and shows a handful of your frequently used apps and recently used apps. This taskbar was being developed for large screen devices like tablets, which have screens more suitable for multitasking.

However, since we first saw the taskbar in Developer Preview 2, we haven’t seen any major improvements to the feature in subsequent Android 12 previews. The reason, as we’ve now learned, is because Google was working on the feature behind-the-scenes for Android 12.1. In addition, we’ve learned that Google is developing this taskbar feature for another class of large screen devices: foldable phones. This makes intuitive sense, as foldables like the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 and Huawei Mate X2 are essentially mini tablets when unfolded. The Galaxy Z Fold 3 even shows the tablet versions of many apps when it is unfolded, and if the rumors are true, the Google Pixel Fold could be just as big as Samsung’s foldable at 7.57-inches when unfolded. While we can’t directly confirm if Google is developing Android’s taskbar feature specifically for the Pixel Fold, we can confirm that foldables are one of the form factors this feature is intended for.

Google’s internal AOSP codebase contains several improvements to the currently barebones taskbar feature. Code changes that implement the taskbar’s tutorial describe some of its planned features. Firstly, entering the tutorial will show an animation described as a “wave” wherein icons scale and translate up and then back down. The tutorial then explains how you’ll be able to launch two apps in split-screen view by dragging an app icon to one side of the screen, touch and hold to hide the taskbar at any time (docking), and add your favorite apps/predicted apps to the taskbar. Once setup, the taskbar stays on the bottom of the screen but will automatically hide itself when an app enters full screen.

One of the code changes implementing the taskbar’s tutorial included an image of the feature in action. The image, embedded below, shows a foldable phone running two instances of Chrome side-by-side, a feature that’s currently in testing. The split screen’s divider line can be seen in-between both Chrome windows, while the taskbar is centered and spans the bottom of both halves.

New taskbar for foldable phones in Android 12.1New taskbar for foldable phones in Android 12.1

Google included this image with its initial implementation of the taskbar tutorial, but they later swapped it for a more generic render. It’s unlikely that Google swapped the image because it accidentally showed off the unreleased Pixel Fold, but the presence of the image does at least suggest that Google is developing the feature with foldable phones in mind.

That’s not the only software change in Android 12.1 aimed at improving the foldable phone experience, though. Various patches in Android 12.1 add better handling for the unfolding animation in the SystemUI. For instance, one patch describes a “move from center” animation for icons in the taskbar when unfolding a foldable phone. Another patch adds support for the hinge angle sensor during the unfolding animation. Yet another patch enables opening an Activity from a system or preinstalled app in 2-pane mode whenever that Activity is deep linked from within Settings.

We don’t have a complete picture of what to expect from Android 12.1, but it’s clear to us that we should expect some improvements for foldable phones in addition to a new wallpaper. We don’t know if Google intends to launch the Pixel Fold with Android 12.1, but it’d make sense given all the new foldable-related patches we’ve seen in the point release. Unfortunately, the Pixel Fold is Google’s most elusive Pixel phone yet, with only a handful of supply chain leaks hinting at its possible display specs. The phone, code-named “passport”, has been a well-guarded secret, and mentions of it are rare even in non-public AOSP repositories. However, one internal code change points to a possible screen resolution of 2208×1804 and a side-mounted fingerprint scanner, though we can’t verify either specification as there’s no direct mention in the patch note of the “passport” device. We will have to wait for the phone to near its launch before we can learn more about it.

Speaking of which, Ross Young, the CEO of Display Supply Chain Consultants (DSCC), believes the Pixel Fold will launch by the end of this year with an LTPO OLED panel and a variable refresh rate up to 120Hz. If the phone does launch in Q4 2021, we’d be surprised as Google doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to containing leaks.

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