Android 13’s predictive back navigation looks like a problem for custom launchers
This week’s Android 13 Beta 1 gave us a fresh look at what Google is working on for this year’s release. While it’s not packed with major, sweeping changes like Android 12, all those little improvements add up to something pretty sweet. We’ll have a fuller picture of what Android 13 will be like on Google I/O in a few weeks, and one of the scheduled events worth watching has us looking at the back gesture with a sense of both confusion and excitement.
The event, “Back to System Back Basics,” teases “predictive back navigation with satisfying animations,” and many of us are curious what that might mean for how the back gesture currently works on Android. Luckily, the ever-reliable Mishaal Rahman did some research on Esper.io. While it’s only able to make educated guesses at the moment – blame the lack of functionality in current Android 13 builds – it’s slowly building up what “predictive back navigation” might actually mean. .
There are two puzzles here to unpack: predictive navigation and “satisfying animations”. As for the former, Rahman isn’t sure what that might mean. The word certainly has ties to Google’s love of AI and machine learning, and it could have something to do with Android trying to guess what the end user is looking to accomplish when backtracking. Android has long been accused of confusing and messy back navigation. Depending on the app, this may take you back through menus, return to a previous page, or return you entirely to the home screen. Rahman’s best guess is that this feature will do a better job of detecting what the user actually wants to return to – another upstream page or the home screen. This is directly related to the second puzzle: these new animations.
Fortunately, Rahman has more concrete details on this part. He found code in the Pixel Launcher that points to a new animation for the homecoming transition, closer to how it looks when you swipe up to go home. Rahman explains:
What I think will happen is that when scrolling back, the app window will resize and follow the user’s finger as it swipes in. If the user allows a minimum distance to pass for the back gesture to be invoked, another animation will play – that of Android 12L which gracefully animates the icon to its location on the home screen or drawer of the application.
Currently, Android 13 Beta 1 is missing the code required to actually test this animation. Rahman notes that this new back gesture will peek at the home screen or app drawer, letting the user know what action they’re performing is about to do.
Of course, if this change were that simple, Google would have made it years ago. Instead, the company should modify Android to immediately follow the user’s finger instead of waiting to go through a trigger zone – again, bringing us back to the predictive gesture – so that the screen behind the gesture can animate properly. It also needs to consider that apps on Android are responsible for what the back gesture does, which led to this confusing feeling in the first place. Android 13 has a new API that would allow the system to check registered handlers from an app. If there isn’t, the system can use this flashy new animation to send the user home or to the app drawer. If there are registered handlers, he can move you down the list in reverse order. Rahman points out that he’s still not 100% sure that’s exactly how the system will work, but it sounds like a solid, educated guess.
This all sounds exciting – until you consider the havoc it could wreak on third-party launchers. Android’s switch to gesture-based navigation with Android 10 has forced many people to move away from launchers altogether or continue to rely on legacy three-button navigation. Slowly, Google and other OEMs restored support to phones, but it took months and, in some cases, years waiting. If Google is going to completely reinvent the back gesture – especially in a way as complex as this – it could get ugly once again.
Anyway, we should learn a lot more about Google I/O in a few weeks. It might not find its way into the main speech, but it’s definitely an event not to be missed.
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