When Android 13 officially arrives this summer, we’re bound to see a bunch of befuddled head scratching.
It won’t be because of heat-induced brain fog and/or dry scalp, either — not entirely, anyway. Instead, this fresh crop of confusion will stem from the fact that after months of buildup and anticipation, Google’s latest and greatest Android version isn’t gonna look like much for the majority of Android-owning organisms.
Sounds strange, I know, but it’s true: For anyone carrying a phone that was already running last year’s Android 12 software, Android 13 is shaping up to be an incredibly subtle, almost-not-even-noticeable change — at least on a surface level.
That’s not to say Android 13 isn’t significant. Far from it, in fact: This year’s Android update may be one of Google’s most pivotal, platform-shifting releases and the rare arrival that genuinely changes the course of where the platform is headed from a bigger-picture perspective.
But somewhat paradoxically, it’s looking more and more like that the brunt of that impact will be almost entirely invisible to most of us mere phone-toting mortals. And consequently, when Android 13 actually shows up in your sweaty person-paws, your first reaction will probably be something along the lines of: “Wait — this is it?!”
It’s a tale of two operating systems in one and a type of dual identity we’ve never quite experienced on Android. But if you take a few minutes to understand what’s happening now, you’ll be far more prepared for what’s coming — and far less likely to find yourself scratching that suspiciously soft noggin of yours in confusion.
Android 13 identity No. 1: The significant side
First things first, a bit of important context: This year’s Android release cycle was unusual even before Android 13 came into the picture.
Back in October of last year, a matter of weeks after Android 12’s arrival, Google announced the development of a new “feature drop” update it was calling Android 12L.
The update, which reached completion and started rolling out to a handful of devices this past March, was basically a 0.1-style update — so Android 12.1 or maybe even Android 13.-01, if you want to get even more accurate (and maybe just a wee bit sassy).
Like Android 13, Android 12L didn’t look like much to anyone with an average Android phone. The update had a handful of teensy tweaks and adjustments to the experience on Google Pixel devices — the primary products that received it — but we’re talkin’ the sort of super-subtle stuff no normal person would ever notice or give an ounce of attention to digesting.
Again, though, Android 12L was significant — supremely so. It was essentially a foundation-creating prestep that established the groundwork for what Android 13 is about to accomplish. And that’s a whole new approach to how Android looks and works in a large-screen environment.
For tablets and also foldable phones, Android 13 and its 12L-provided framework will be downright transformative. The software will introduce an interface that’s actually optimized for large-screen use, with different elements on different halves of the display and a host of new desktop-like multitasking tools — including a nifty Chrome-OS-inspired taskbar that lets you access your favorite apps from anywhere and even drag ’em up to create an on-the-fly split-screen setup.
Beyond that — and even more significantly — Android 13 will effectively create an entire new category of Google-flavored devices. The software has a series of features that’ll allow tablets to be treated as shared devices when they’re docked, with access to a specific set of “communal apps” in that context, and then let multiple users pick the tablets up and sign into their own personal profiles.
Signs suggest Google’s own upcoming Pixel Tablet may tap into those possibilities and act as a new kind of hybrid mashup — a cross between a souped-up Smart Display and a traditional tablet that’d be unlike anything else out there today.
And all of that is because of Android 13 and the concepts it’s introducing into the operating system.
But then there’s the other side of Android 13 — the side that anyone with a non-folding phone will almost certainly see.
And — well…
Android 13 identity No. 2: The subtle side
I’ve been using the latest Android 13 betas on my spare Pixel 4a phone for several weeks now, and lemme tell ya: By and large, the software looks, feels, and acts almost exactly like Android 12.
That’s so true, in fact, that I’d be shocked if any regular, non-tech-obsessed and detail-seeking phone owner noticed any real difference upon receiving the update.
Now, it’s always possible that Google could add some extra front-facing elements into Android 13 between now and the time of its final release. I originally assumed that was inevitable, given how subtle the software’s changes are on the phone front.
But typically, the version of a beta release Google shows off at its I/O conference ends up being pretty darn similar to the one that ships later that year. And more and more, it’s looking like Android 13’s greatest impact is all that stuff it’ll bring to the large-screen side of the Android ecosystem.
To be clear: On the phone front, there’ll absolutely be improvements. For instance, Android 13 allows you to drag a notification down into the main area of your screen to open the associated app in a split-screen state — a neat new touch that makes Android’s multi-window system feel like a much more native and prominent part of the operating system.
But let’s be honest: Most people won’t ever notice that or be aware of its existence. The same goes for all of Android 13’s under-the-hood improvements — the undeniably important privacy and security enhancements that’ll make Android even more effective at protecting your data and keeping your device safe.
That sort of stuff is present in practically every Android update, and that’s a huge part of why Android updates absolutely matter even if you aren’t excited about what’s on the surface.
Still, it’s impossible to deny that the surface-level elements are what most ordinary mammals see and associate with a new piece of software. And with Android 13, we’ve got two totally different pictures shaping up: the one that’ll bring a dramatic, night-and-day change to the tablet front and open up the door to a whole new type of Android device experience and the one that’ll land with an understated thump on the phone side and seem like much ado about nothing to most Android adorers.
I’m not sure we’ve ever seen a single software update take on such drastically different identities at the same time like this. It’s a bold move on Google’s part and one that may lead to even more diverging paths within Android in the future.
For now, one thing’s for sure: Android 13’s arrival this summer will mark the start of a new era for this ever-evolving platform of ours — even if it may feel completely inconsequential for most of us in the moment.
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