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Android 12 and the big deal with little touches

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Ahh — can you smell it? The scent of freshly baking Android software is very much in the air this week, as Android 12’s first official developer preview teases us with a tiny taste of what’s to come.

Google launched the inaugural public version of Android 12 last week, and the internet’s many software-sniffing sleuths have been hard at work pokin’ around and clawing at its many crevices to uncover every last hint of the treats lurking within.

So far, Android 12 doesn’t look like much — and for good reason: This latest Android version really is a true developer preview, with mostly just technical changes aimed at, y’know, developers. It actually makes an awful lot of sense, even if Android previews in the past have generally been a little more elaborate early on.

But don’t despair. Despite the limited number of new front-facing features in the current version of the software, the combination of tucked-away bits of code in its corners and prerelease leaks surrounding the preview gives us a pretty interesting picture of some of the flavors Android 12 might end up serving.

It’s creating a pretty unusual situation, too, as it’s forcing us to focus mostly on those relatively little touches — the sorts of small but significant enhancements that often get lost in the bigger-picture view of a new Android release. And lemme tell ya: If everything we’re seeing now ends up making it into the final Android 12 software this fall, we could have some very helpful new tools at our fingertips.

Here’s one example: Signs suggest Android 12 will include a new smarter autorotate system — something that really has me geeking out over the subtle but significant quality-of-life improvement it could provide. The system would apparently use your phone’s front-facing camera to continuously detect which way your head is turned, relative to your phone, and then automatically adjust your screen’s rotation in the way that makes the most sense for any given moment.

Small detail? You betcha. But massively significant in terms of real-world value? You’d better believe it. As we discussed in my newsletter on Friday, it’s such an intelligent and Googley solution to a constant, always-appearing pain point of modern-day phone use — one of those little irksome things that annoys most of us numerous times every day — and it’s a perfect example of how software and ongoing updates can play such an important role in the phone-owning experience, even when the effect is subtle.

Another possible Android 12 improvement I’m excited to see is a series of improvements to the software’s oft-overlooked picture-in-picture system — y’know, the thing that shrinks YouTube videos, Maps navigations, and other such materials down into a small floating window that can be moved around on top of whatever else you’re doing. Android 11 made it possible to resize those windows by dragging your finger diagonally on their edges, and now, it looks like Android 12 could take things a step further by (a) making it even easier to resize ’em, with proper pinch-to-zoom support, and (b) letting you push a picture-in-picture window off the side of your screen to get it out of your way temporarily without having to dismiss it entirely.

Again: Tiny improvements, right? Almost not even worthy of a mention in any official Android 12 announcement? Yuuuup. And, for that matter, let’s be honest: Once we see the big picture of Android 12, there’s very little chance that changes like this would get any attention. But as someone who uses that picture-in-picture function constantly for keeping an eye on videos whilst I go about other Very Important Work-Related Tasks (since those are the only tasks I ever tackle, obviously), I can’t even begin to express how much easier it’d make my life to have those options.

The same can be said for the incredibly piddly-sounding addition of a new swipe gesture for Android’s screenshot confirmation function. Google recently started showing an on-screen confirmation every time you capture a screenshot on your phone — a pint-sized preview of the image along with an option to share or edit it. And vexingly, you have to tap a tiny “x” on that confirmation in order to dismiss it. It’s the smallest of small details, but the natural inclination when something like that pops up on your screen is to swipe it away — and as it stands now, doing that accomplishes little more than exercising your thumb for no reason and making you feel like a nit.

Well, with Android 12, you can swipe that screenshot confirmation away. A small detail, absolutely, but one that’ll make interactions with my phone easier, more efficient, and more effective countless times a day.

The list goes on and on from there. Android 12 appears to have a more prominent command for notification snoozing — something I willed into existence (or so I tell myself) in 2017’s Android 8 release but that’s remained awkwardly out of sight and thus mostly undiscovered by the masses — along with a simple new system-wide swipe-down-from-anywhere gesture for easily opening your notification panel and other one-handed phone use enhancements.

The software seems to include some super-sensible improvements to the core Android gesture system, too — three cheers for Back gesture predictability! — as well as an improvement to the Android magnification tool that’ll make that feature much easier to use for anyone with accessibility needs. And all of this is still only scratching the surface.

From what we know so far, it seems like the bigger themes of Android 12 could revolve around security, with a new set of controls for restricting how and when apps can access your microphone and camera (and a hefty set of enterprise-specific security advancements alongside that); design, with some significant-looking changes to the Android visual language and an ambitious new system for native theming throughout all of Android; and widgets, with a renewed focus that could fulfill my high-geek-quotient fantasies of both an Android widget revival and a streamlined Android messaging experience.

That’s all well and good, but with the exception of maybe that last item, I’m honestly more excited about the little stuff. Once the launch-week coverage fades away and the software makes its way into our sweaty person-paws, it’s often those smaller touches that make the more tangible differences in our day-to-day lives. And as we’ve seen with our recent explorations of forgotten (but still incredibly useful) Android features from the past, it’s all too easy to overlook those sorts of things and fail to appreciate what they have to offer.

With Android 12, we’re in the unusual position of being able to focus our attention solely on those smaller elements, at least for this fleeting moment. And that, at this point in the process, might just be the greatest gift of all.

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