Android 13 predictive back navigation sounds like trouble for custom launchers

This week’s Android 13 Beta 1 release gave us a new look into what Google’s working on for this year’s release. While it might not be chock full of grand, sweeping changes like Android 12, all of those small improvements add up to something pretty sweet. We’ll get a fuller picture of what Android 13 is shaping up to be at Google I / O in a couple of weeks, and one of the scheduled events worth attending has us looking at the back gesture with a sense of both confusion and excitement .

The event, “Back to the Basics of System Back,” teases “predictive back navigation with satisfying animations,” and it has many of us curious about what this could mean for how the back gesture currently works on Android. Thankfully, the ever-reliable Mishaal Rahman did some digging over at Esper.io. Although he’s only able to make some educated guesses at the moment – blame the lack of the feature in current Android 13 builds – he’s slowly putting together what “predictive back navigation” might actually mean.

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There are two puzzles here to unpack: predictive navigation and “satisfying animations.” As for the former, Rahman isn’t certain about what this might mean. The word certainly has ties to Google’s love of AI and machine learning, and that could tie into Android trying to guess what the end-user is looking to accomplish when swiping back. Android has long been accused of confusing and messy back navigation. Depending on the app, it could push you back through menus, back to a previous page, or back to the home screen entirely. Rahman’s best guess is that this feature will better attempt to detect what the user actually wants to return to – another page upstream or the home screen. This ties directly into the second puzzle: those new animations.


Thankfully, Rahman has some more concrete details on this part. He’s found code in the Pixel Launcher that points to a new animation for the back-to-home transition, closer in line to the way it looks when you swipe up to go home. Rahman explains:

What I think will happen is that when swiping back, the app window will scale and follow the user’s finger as they swipe inward. If the user lets go past a minimum distance for the back gesture to be invoked, then another animation will play out – the one from Android 12L that gracefully animates the icon towards its location on the home screen or app drawer.

Right now, Android 13 Beta 1 is missing the requisite code to actually test out this animation. Rahman notes that this new back gesture will peek at either the home screen or the app drawer, indicating to the user what the action they’re performing is about to do.

Of course, if this change were that simple, Google would’ve done it years ago. Instead, the company has to modify Android to immediately track the user’s finger instead of waiting to pass by a trigger area – again, leading us back to predictive gesture – so that the screen behind the gesture can properly animate. It also has to account for apps on Android being responsible for what the back gesture does, which has led to this sense of confusion in the first place. Android 13 has a new API that would allow the system to check for registered handlers from an app. If there aren’t any, the system can use that flashy new animation to send the user either home or back to the app drawer. If there are registered handlers, it can push you back through the list in reverse order. Rahman stresses he’s still not 100 percent sure this is exactly how the system will work, but it sounds like a solid educated guess.


All of this sounds exciting – until you consider the havoc it could release on third-party launchers. Android’s switch to gesture-based navigation with Android 10 forced many to move away from altogether launchers or to continue relying on legacy three-button navigation. Slowly, Google and other OEMs brought support back to phones, but it took months and, in some cases, years of waiting. If Google’s going to completely reinvent the back gesture – especially in such a complex way as this – it could get ugly once more.

Either way, we should learn a whole lot more at Google I / O in a couple of weeks. It might not find a place in the main keynote, but it’s certainly an event not to be missed.


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