To say that Android tablets have been a letdown might be the understatement of the century.
When you step back and think about it, the fact that Android tablets are such an underemphasized afterthought is almost shocking. Android is the world's most popular operating system, after all — by a pretty hefty margin. It's easy to forget sometimes, but more humans carry Android-powered smartphones than any other type of device in the universe.
And yet, for all of those advantages, Google has year after year failed to turn Android tablets into a compelling, sought-after type of technology that's more than a mere blip on the mobile-tech radar. It's reached the point where I flat-out tell folks to stay away from Android tablets and consider convertible Chromebooks instead — 'cause unlike the typical Android tablet, any Chromebook you buy will actually get updates. It'll be supported with the latest privacy, security, and performance standards for years after its purchase. And it'll provide a truly great all-around experience.
Plain and simple, it'll bring all the qualities you want from an Android tablet into a more productivity-minded, work-friendly setup — one with plenty of perks and without all the standard Android tablet disadvantages.
Here's what's fascinating, though: Android tablets didn't have to be this way. Nearly 12 years ago, Google bought a buzzworthy software startup that was doing incredibly interesting things with interface design. The company had all sorts of wild ideas about the future of large-screen touch interaction, and Google seemed destined to bring those concepts into the land of Android.
[Get fresh Googley insight in your inbox with my Android Intelligence newsletter. Three things to know and three things to try every Friday!]
This is the story of an alternate future for Android tablets — a future that could have seen Android-powered tablets charting new territory and shaking up the way we thought about large-screen computing experiences.
This is the story of the Android tablet interface that could have been.
Before we get into the meat of this zesty tech sandwich, we need to step back for a sec and set the scene of what was going on with Google in the early part of the 2010 decade.
The Android tablet saga technically started in the fall of 2010, just months after Apple launched its first Magical and Revolutionary™ iPad. At that point, for context, Google didn't have a great way for Android to exist in a "big-screen" form. (I put "big-screen" in quotes because the earliest Android tablets weren't much bigger than our current Android phones. Hey, it's all relative.) So with everyone and their mother suddenly gushing over Apple's inaugural slate-shaped creation, Android device-makers who were desperate to compete scrambled to slap together their own half-baked setup.
Most prominently, Samsung spewed out its first-ever Galaxy Tab — a 7" slate that ran Android 2.2, worked exactly like a phone, and even let you make and receive calls with your own SIM card in certain scenarios. So in other words, yeah: It was more or less just a big phone.
Early the next year, in 2011, Google came out with its Android 3.0 Honeycomb software — a tablet-only release that introduced a totally new foundation and prepared Android to exist in a large-screen form. The first true Android tablets, including the classic Motorola Xoom, followed.
Android 3.0 was actually an admirable framework for a whole new kind of mobile-tech experience — one in which the core Android interface was completely reimagined to take advantage of the newfound screen space and create a more efficiency-optimized, productivity-minded environment.
(Be sure to make a mental bookmark of the name shown in the notification on that video thumbnail, by the way. It'll be relevant in a minute.)
But that mindset wouldn't last for long. Apple had already made a serious splash with its iPad, and Google did its usual Google thing — first, failing to get developers on board quickly enough to make a good first impression with how apps operated in its newly scaled-up environment, then eventually losing its focus, pivoting away from its original vision, and ultimately just letting the idea of the Android tablet languish without any meaningful movement forward.
By 2016, Google had by all counts given up on the idea of the Android tablet. Android tablets still existed, of course, but Google wasn't doing much to advance or promote 'em.
And that's to say nothing of the Android tablet possibility that never made its way to the surface or had any chance to shine.
Time to fly back now to May of 2010 — just a few short months after Apple's first iPad splashed its way into the world. Google, presumably hard at work on the early efforts around Honeycomb, quietly bought a company called BumpTop. Rumor has it the deal cost a cool $25 to $35 million — no small chunk of change, to say the least.
There was no formal announcement or fanfare from Google about the acquisition, but BumpTop alerted its existing users that its current software would no longer be sold or supported and that it'd be taking the app "in an exciting new direction" within Google's famed walls.
So what exactly was BumpTop? In short, it was a dramatically different take on the traditional computing interface. The software made your desktop look and act like a physical desk, with all sorts of multitouch gestures and clever systems for interacting with your stuff.
In a 2007 TED Talk, BumpTop's founder, Anand Agarawala — remember that name from a minute ago? — said he believed we were still in "the cave-painting era of computer interfaces" and that it was high time for someone to try something new.
"One kind of information space I ... take inspiration from is my real desk. It's so much more subtle, so much more visceral — you know, what's visible, what's not. And I'd like to bring that experience to the desktop," he said.
BumpTop evolved into a much more touch-centric interface in the months that followed. And it's really something you have to see to appreciate. This 2009 demo video shows the basics of the BumpTop desktop and how the software reinvented the act of getting around a computer:
Once BumpTop became a Google entity, most folks assumed its approach was bound to become the future of Android in its larger-screen form. As Fast Company put it at the time:
Most upcoming tablets will be looking to Android. ... But on a bigger screen, Android’s rough edges are pretty obvious. A skin, like HTC’s Sense or Dell’s Stage, is one option, but BumpTop might be a better solution. It’ll need some tweaking (it doesn’t have any of Android’s hallmark and completely essential UI features, like the notification shade or app drawer) but it has the potential to offer something really different for an Android tablet.
It made sense — almost too much sense.
But, as you can probably imagine, things didn't exactly play out in the way anyone anticipated.
Aside from the big BumpTop purchase, something else significant happened inside Google in the month of May 2010. Toward the end of that very same month, just a few weeks after the BumpTop deal went through, a well-respected designer joined Google as its first user experience director for Android.
That designer was none other than Matias Duarte — the guy who'd led development of Palm's webOS interface and earned accolades for his efforts on the Danger-made Sidekick (a.k.a. the Hiptop) before that.
And who had Duarte worked alongside at Danger? Major nerd points if you know the answer: It was a certain Andy Rubin, who co-founded the company and then went on to co-found Android and oversee its evolution within Google all the way through 2013.
Rubin's legacy is now much more complicated, to put it mildly, but at the time, he was the grand commander of all things Android — and Duarte was his new deputy entrusted with bringing a greater focus to design for the platform. Thus far, powerful as Android had been, the software had generally veered more toward utility, with design taking a back seat to sheer power and function.
Under Duarte's direction, we saw a noticeable shift. First came the software known as Honeycomb — though with its efforts already underway at the time of Duarte's arrival, the seven-months-later Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich release is generally considered to be more representative of Duarte's full influence.
Either way, the concepts from BumpTop barely made a blip in the operating system. You can see what seems to be a slight touch of BumpTop inspiration in the Honeycomb-era accordion widgets, which followed a similar sort of stacking and flipping model to what we saw all throughout BumpTop...
...but aside from that, there isn't much obvious inspiration from BumpTop anywhere in Android — at least, outwardly — and it seems like most of its concepts got lost over time.
As for BumpTop's founder, Anand Agarawala, he worked at Google for about four and a half years, according to his LinkedIn profile — starting with the moment of BumpTop's acquisition and going all the way through October of 2014. His profile indicates he played some manner of role in Android interface development for the Android 2.3 Gingerbread release that came out in December of 2010 as well as the subsequent Honeycomb and Ice Cream Sandwich updates. After that, he apparently spent time working on "next-generation AR assistant applications" at Google X as well as on the Google+ mobile apps and on the Google Photos "automatic story creations" feature.
Agarawala left Google in 2014 and has been heading up his own new startup in the years since — a company called Spatial that brings some very familiar-feeling interface concepts into the realm of augmented reality.
And BumpTop itself is now available as an open-source project, with a note from Agarawala that states:
We really believe we’re just scratching the surface of what's possible with the way we interact with technology. As touch and virtual reality interfaces rapidly evolve, we think some of the ideas we explored might be relevant now more than ever. The future of BumpTop is now in your hands, the community of passionate fans and developers of BumpTop who supported our mission of a bold new, physical dimension of UIs since the beginning.
And so it goes.
There's one more fascinating footnote to this story — and, perhaps, to the future of Android tablets and where things could go from here.
In a move that seems to have gone largely unnoticed by the Google-watching masses, a fella by the name of Rich Miner appears to have joined Google last March in order to take on a new role with the title of "CTO, Android tablets."
In case his name doesn't ring an immediate bell, Miner was one of the original co-founders of Android — right alongside Andy Rubin. I interviewed him in 2016 for my (no-longer-publicly-available) podcast and heard all about his winding path through the mobile-tech universe. He played a key role in Android's birth and helped shape its direction over the first several years of its existence, and while he may not be a household name today, his influence undeniably helped Android grow into what it's become.
(I tried reaching out to Google to request additional info on the nature of Miner's new role and to see if he'd be available for an interview, but I never heard back. I've also tried to contact Agarawala a couple times over the years without any response.)
Miner left Android in 2010 and went on to work at Google's venture capital branch. In 2016, he took a position heading up some mysterious new Google education project that may or may not have ultimately resulted in any tangible products. And now, it seems he's come back to his roots to pursue another new beginning under the Android umbrella.
The tale of Android tablets has already had more than its share of twists, turns, and missed opportunities. But maybe, just maybe, the story isn't over yet. Maybe another chapter will emerge.
If there's one thing you learn from spending enough time watching Google, it's that you never truly know what might come next.
Sign up for my Android Intelligence newsletter to get zesty Google-flavored knowledge in your inbox every Friday.