16
Jun
honeycomb-bee-android

I've been thinking about writing this editorial for some time now. And today, with the announcement of Panasonic's upcoming Toughbook Android tablet, I finally decided to go for it. The point this article is trying to make may not be abundantly clear in the title, so let me see if I can get it across as a question: Is it just me, or are there a suspiciously large number of companies in or planning to enter the Android tablet market?

It sounds like a silly question to ask. And to a degree, it's not exactly a hugely relevant question, either. Who really cares how many companies are trying to get into the tablet market? Those who make tablets that don't sell will fall out of relevance, while those that make ones which succeed in the marketplace will continue making them. It's natural selection - it just happens to be our wallets, not the intricate workings of evolution, that are the force of nature at play here. And really, that's true. The market for consumer electronics has evolved in ways no one could have predicted in the last 20, 10, or even 5 years - and will continue to do so.

But even with this, as we perceive, "boom" in Android tablets, I still wonder: are they really going to experience the ongoing explosion of diversity their evolutionary cousins (smartphones) have? It seems that many assume, based on all the recent entries of various manufacturers into the Android tablet fray, that the clear answer is yes. I'm not so sure. Let me offer up a few thoughts that fuel my mild skepticism.

"Dellification"

This is a great word. I saw it used in a fantastic article today about the history and inner workings of Android by Fortune over at CNN. When discussing the explosion of Android smartphones, the writer of that piece wondered if handset manufacturers ran the risk of becoming "Dells" in the phone marketplace - that is, competing on price point and minor hardware differences, rather than features. For phones, I don't see this happening. Carrier price subsidies ensure that there's really only two price points to compete at: budget and premium.

In the world of laptops, when you're buying a $600 notebook, a comparable but lesser product that costs $500 might catch your eye - because it's saving you $100 out of 600. The more expensive the good, it seems the more we're willing to sacrifice in order to save money. And when it comes to computers, you have a seemingly endless selection of competitive products to choose from.

With smartphones, customers have, really, three options: exciting, old, or boring. Exciting will cost you anywhere from $100 to $250, while old or boring budget handsets generally come in below $50 (or more often, free). Carriers like you for your contractual commitment, not your equipment purchases - so there's little reason to compete for every penny on handset prices. Very few people buy smartphones off-contract.

But tablets are different. Sure, there's carrier-subsidized tablets out there - the Galaxy Tab, the Verizon XOOM, the EVO View 4G, the G-Slate, and likely more in the future. But those are all made by the "big 4" Android handset manufacturers right now - Samsung, Motorola, HTC, and LG. Not to mention the carrier-ized G-Slate and Galaxy Tab have seen more "special offers" and "temporary price cuts" than the Blu-ray aisle of a Best Buy - which is a polite way of saying they aren't exactly flying off the shelves. And let's not even talk about the Verizon XOOM's sales figures when the Wi-Fi version's have already drawn criticism enough.

3G/4G tablets are fine and dandy, but the average person is toting their tablet into the bathroom, the office, and the office bathroom. Places that all (hopefully) have Wi-Fi. And when they aren't, the average Android tablet owner probably has an Android phone and understands what "tethering" is. People who buy carrier-subsidized tablets? They probably talk about "synergy" or "workflow" on a fairly regular basis and fly business class. In short: it's a niche market.

We all know the real tablet war is being waged in a different arena: "Wi-Fi only" - and it's a veritable Wild West of consumer computing. Before Honeycomb, every Android tablet on the market, frankly, sucked (maybe excluding the Galaxy Tab, which has its share of devotees). Now everyone and their Aunt's-Uncle-twice-removed is making something with 4 corners, 2 cores, and Android 3.0 onboard. The lack of product differentiation is almost scary. Tegra 2, Android 3.0, 10.1 or 8.9 inches, and a huge multi-day battery describe almost every major Android tablet. Let's see:

  • Motorola XOOM
  • LG G-Slate
  • Galaxy Tab 10.1
  • Galaxy Tab 8.9
  • ASUS Transformer
  • Acer Iconia A500
  • Dell Venue Pro
  • Toshiba Thrive

It's like a formula. That's Dellification. And which one (among those available) seems to be selling the best? Why, the cheapest one, of course - the ASUS Transformer was so popular at launch that retailers were barely able to keep up with demand (supplies have since increased). Also, it's the one most like a netbook, thanks to its keyboard dock. When you ask people to choose among a group of differently-priced products that all essentially "do" the same thing, they're going to pick with their wallets.

A company like ASUS survives on razor-thin profit margins, and isn't afraid to scrape by on them to win over customers - volume is everything. HTC, Motorola, and Samsung are trying to sell premium products in a budget market - though Samsung's pricing on the Tab 10.1 (for what it is) really straddles the fence compared to fare from HTC and Moto.

What happens when someone bucks the trend and tries to make a different premium tablet product? The HTC Flyer is probably the best example of this. $500 for a 7-inch tablet, running on a single core (albeit a quick one), in addition to the $80 you'll spend on the stylus that you'd have to be nuts not to get with it. Minus the stylus, we saw this tactic last year with the Galaxy Tab. It didn't work. Why?

An iPad 2 will cost you that same $500, though you don't get an opportunity to spend any more cash on a nifty digital pen. And when you get into that $500+ premium segment, Apple dominates to an even greater degree. Because at this price point, people are paying for a brand. You could also pick up a Motorola XOOM Wi-Fi with a little searching around that $500 mark. But why would you? It's heavier, fatter, and probably slower.

So, What's The Point You're Making Here?

Budget-friendly Android tablets seem likely to stick around. Premium ones seem likely to continue being marketplace flops - unless something major changes. This, in turn, leads me to the title. Will premium Android tablets ever be viable? I can say I'd be interested in an Android tablet that either (1) is in terms of specifications, performance and quality comparable to an iPad at the same price, or (2) truly outperforms an iPad for a bit more money. But I have yet to see a single product that is either of those things.

Samsung's Galaxy Tab 10.1 is the closest we've gotten - matching the iPad's price, and its slimness. But reports of screen separation on I/O models of the Tab, Honeycomb's notorious bugginess (depending on who you ask), and the lack of tablet apps on the Market make me wonder: can the Tab succeed where all its previous competitors have failed? And if it can't, will manufacturers start losing in interest in the tablet platform for Android?

And with an ARM-ready Windows 8 optimized for tablets around the corner, how focused on Android will companies like Acer, ASUS, and Dell remain? Microsoft has historically done very well selling hardware in the budget market, where price is the major concern. And without the great equalizer of carrier equipment subsidies, this is real food for thought in the tablet ecosystem.

This is all off in the distance, though. Google obviously wants Android to live on tablets, and manufacturers think tablets are the next big thing. Nobody's saying that HTC, Motorola, Samsung, or LG are getting out of the tablet game next week, month, or even year. But I am saying that the combination of price competitiveness through carrier subsidies and the increasing ubiquity of smartphones are two factors that won't be able give Android tablets the room to grow that handsets have had.

Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

David Ruddock
David's phone is whatever is currently sitting on his desk. He is an avid writer, and enjoys playing devil's advocate in editorials, and reviewing the latest phones and gadgets. He also doesn't usually write such boring sentences.

  • Anthony

    The best tablet for the price is the viewsonic g tablet. It's hackable and runs hc really well. Tegra 2 and has cm7. It's the only tablet I ever would buy and did buy.

  • scott

    You know I have wondered the same thing, I really like the thrive and all I have read about it..but 579.00 for the 32 gig is a lot..and is this product going to stick around..orginally I wanted to go with HTC flyer but 500 plus another 80 for a pen is a little crazy, I really want to make a jump into the arena but I am nervous...if I buy this will something else come out that is compraible and cheaper.

  • Jaymoon

    I'm still unsure about tablets in general. I just don't see myself purchasing one, and actively using it.

    A separate data plan is not really an option I'm interested in signing up for. Nor is tethering all time with my phone. ..and if I can't place it in my pocket, I doubt I'd carry it around with me all day.

    Maybe I'd use it while at home on Wi-Fi, but with a CR-48 and netbook already, I have a hard time justifying this extra $400-800 purchase for a tablet.

    Android or iPad, I don't see what the big deal is.

  • eTiMaGo

    Sure, at the moment each tablet out there is pretty much cookie-cutter save for a few unique features for each one (EeePad's KB dock, Iconia's built in full USB port, Tab's slimness, etc), but I think it's far too early in these device class' life to make any solid predictions! Let's let the dust settle and see what the landscape looks like :)

    • David Ruddock

      I agree, things could definitely change, and I sure as heck can't see the future.

      That said, the current state of things can be used to draw some inferences, and make some guesses, and that's what I've done.

      I could be totally wrong.

    • Jon Garrett

      Tablets are here to stay....if they step up their game people will buy them.

      make them affordable
      fix the bugs
      make the apps work on all devices.

      • Dominik

        I agree, tablets aren't going anywhere. Like with most things in the computer technology industry, the price performance ratio is getting better quick. So are the Apps.

        I'd venture so far as to say that in 2-3 years most households in the US that can afford it will have at least one tablet.

  • Raphael

    Great article and a very accurate assessment of the android tablet market. I think the problem is that Manufacturers/Google saw the phone market and automatically thought the same success would happen the same way. The problem is phones are not tablets and using the same strategy will not work. $500 for the HTC flyer with $80 for the pen, $800 for the first Xoom released missing 4g and sd card support, galaxy tab with no sd card,...so many missteps in the face of the ipad/ipad 2 that is selling millions

    I love my evo and desperately wanted an android tablet but I ended up getting an ipad. I will probably get in on the 2nd gen of android tabs. Hopefully google would have learned enough by then to polish the OS and we will have the quality apps (that we can easily identify in the market)

  • Brady O'Brien

    Premium tab vs. bargain tab? I'm looking for a "replace my notebook PC with an android tab because I like android but am not quite nerdy enough for Ubuntu or rich enough for a Mac?" device? I would have no problem shelling out $600 for an android tab if I could really eliminate Microsoft from my life without a lotto ticket.

    Oh did I mention that to replace my PC I'd need to NOT have apple telling me what I can and can't do with my own device? Thanks for playing, drive through iPAD.

  • Bert derper

    Just buy a ebay xoom. I just picked up a still in plastic xoom for $480. The reasons for picking the xoom were simple. Its built like a tank. Feels industrially tuff compared to an ipad2.

    The other reason is that the xoom is googles flagship reference tablet, like the nexus s is to phones. This ensures guaranteed updates first And has a unlocked bootloader unlike the acer who is pulling a "typical" motorola.

  • Bert derper

    Xoom 3g that is,.. I really liked the black back better lol

  • kayjay

    I won a free wifi xoom on another website and I love it I mean I have my commplaints but overall I really like it,I don't feel like its worth 600 dollars if I woulda paid that alot of regreat would start likley happening. Tho with android tablets I'm seeing ALOT of potential in the future

  • http://www.reeladvice.net Reel Advice

    Great read and you had some points that really made me think about the Android tablet market right now. It's a scary thought but you may have a good point on the Windows 8 scenario.

    It never really got me why most manufacturers actually cost Android tablets as high (or even higher) than the iPad. It's a surefire way for your product to flop in my opinion. Probably due to lower yields in manufacturing?

  • Vince

    Tablets just don't appeal to me. Never saw a need for them as I have my Android phone and a laptop. I don't need to spend $500+ just to browse the web on another device.

  • Andrew / Des Moines

    You completely missed the long term view, even though you brushed right by it -- the Transformer. Yes, tablets will take off in a big way when they start replacing PC's, now more than ever in the form of a laptop. Soon you will go to best buy and see more and more dockable tablets with keyboards and ever increasing performance. This will be the boom you are looking for.

  • Andrew / Des Moines

    An interesting statistic to keep an eye on that will shed light on this trend is: the time difference between tablets of the current day to mid-range laptops with similar performance at a given time in the past. How long ago was it we had 1.2 GHz computers with 1 GB of RAM?

  • Kiamat

    It's all about the apps. I moved from the iPhone to the EVO 4G and have never looked back. But when it came time to get a tablet I went with the iPad. Why? Because it can do more *right now*. Out of the box my iPad can control my Comcast DVR and allows me to watch Comcast VOD, it lets me watch Netflix, Hulu Plus, and HBO Go. No Android tablet currently does this.

    Whenever someone asks me my advice on a tablet purchase I always tell them: with an Android tablet you're investing in what it can *potentially* do. With an iPad you're investing in what it can *currently* do (and will potentially do later).

    When the iPad came out it was derided as a giant iPhone and it was just that. It wasn't until the devs got a hold of it that it really lived up to its potential.

    If Google can attract the kind of quality devs that Apple has, if it can make it easy and attractive for them to port over their existing apps and encourage them to create new ones, then Android tablets will finally start to really compete.

    The second problem is cost. Especially without the lure of attractive apps, the only way for Android tablets to gain mass appeal is to greatly underprice the iPad.

    When given the option between an iPad and anything else even with a $50 price difference most consumers are going to go with the known, "it" thing--the iPad. Android tablets have to be priced aggressively starting at least $100 less than a comparable iPad. Manufacturers are going to have to take a loss in order to gain market share and mindshare.

    • Franky

      If it's apps which make that much difference .... why not use a win7-tablet? No appstore can even remotely match the number (and, I'd like to add, usefullness!) of x86-software available.

      • Kiamat

        Because Win 7 isn't optimized for touch interface. And the programs for full sized Windows are made for machines with hundreds of gigs storage while most tablets are packing 16-32gbs.

      • Chris

        Most of that software won't run well on a tablet with a finger-touch interface though. Try using Photoshop or Word without a special tablet UI overlay; the buttons are absolutely tiny and impossible to use without some sort of stylus or more precise input device.

        That's one of the reasons why Windows tablets never took off previously. They, and the applications designed for the Windows environment, were made for the extreme accuracy a mouse interface allows coupled with the constant availability of a hardware keyboard.

        What Apple and Google realized was that tablets shouldn't use scaled-down PC interfaces, but scaled-up mobile interfaces. That was the key difference that made stand-alone tablets viable, rather than the touchscreen laptops referred to as tablets previously.

  • ben dover

    I saw tablets coming before the rumors of the first ipad. I think its the future and that we're only seeing the very beginning of it right now.

    I picked up a nook color and rooted it in hopes of putting honeycomb on it. $250 is a great price for entry level tablet. But as we all know, Google withheld 3.x source code.

    So I sold it and spent the extra $150 for the Asus transformer. Im so glad I did!
    Sure its early in the android tablet game but Google has already shown they are taking android to a whole notha level on tablets! USB hosting is just one huge example that we haven't even begun to see the benefits from.

    To be quite honest, I love windows 7 as my laptop os but want nothing to do with their tablets. Android just "feels right" as a tablet os.

    Android will explode with great tablet apps in due to time. Remember the first six months for the ipad? Give it time.

    I agree with your point on the budget price tablets winning out in the end. My $400 tablet has almost completely replaced my $1200 laptop!

    Just give tablets a couple more years of innovation and we'll wonder how we ever lived without them just like we do with our smartphones now! :-)

  • Marc

    I have a Xoom and Transformer. Had a Galaxy Tab, gave it to my mom. In my opinion the Transformer was definitely the better buy. I find myself not connecting the Xoom to my home WiFi just so I can use as much of my 5GB plan as possible.

  • Bruce

    Another word for the same thing is commoditization. Yes it is happening with tablets and will continue to. It is also happening with Android phones.

    Most of the companies you mention have been pushing commoditized Windows boxes for years. It's their confort zone, and they are extending their comfort zone to Android.

  • L boogie

    Good article, David..... the android tablet market is still in the trial and error stage and preparing for primetime with various players vying for top spot and challenging the iPad's dominance assuming the players can learn from the likes of Asus & Acer and create unique, quality products with an efficient price point and the android tablet market could see an explosion similar to that of its smartphone brethren

  • ffastffrank

    Another good question is size? 7" or 10" ?

    I love ability to carry my 7" NookColor in a front pocket. Also great for laying in bed. For the ladies, it will fit in a purse. Price is another key point. I found a new one for $200 & at this price, rooting is an easy decision. Also big community of Rooters on xda-developers.com.

    It seems 10" is more for table top or laptop and it seems heavy to hold with your hand for very long.

    Any more comments?

  • Franky

    I couldn't agree more. Like I stated earlier, Moto has just shot their own kneecap off with their pricing-policy of the Xoom. Another serious setback was the pre-release of honeycomb when it clearly wasn't ready to be (and in some aspects still isn't).

    Considering the Xoom also was the tablet which so far gained the most media-coverage of all android-tablets (remember: they are trying to challenge the ridiculously omnipresent iPad!) that was the absolutely worst that could happen to the image of android-tablets.

    It will be hard now for android-tablets to overcome the stigma of being an overpriced, buggy device.

  • sdghrtjrtds

    community of Rooters on xda-developers.com.

    It seems 10″ is more for table top or laptop and it seems heavy to hold with your hand for very long.

    Any more comments?

  • Jared

    Bottom line has always been and always will be price.
    In the beginning Android took off for three reasons. It was kinda like the iPhone as in it had apps, it was on every major carrier and many phones were dirt cheap-to-Free. And the phones were so affordable because of HEAVY carrier subsidies and discounts.
    Granted recently Android has grown some muscle to flex against Apple especially in the usability/stability/extensibility arena and many handsets are holding their own against the iPhone.
    We are not going to see the same explosive growth with Tablets because the margins are just not there for the manufacturers. As the author stated, WiFi only is where the Tablet market is at and that means no subsidies from carriers.
    So the average consumer who walks into a Best Buy looking for a tablet is deciding between a $500 iPad and $500 Tab the decision is a no brainer - iPad. Its simple really, iPad commercials have all the airtime, friends have the iPad...iPad, iPad, iPad. When you mention Tablet the average consumer just thinks iPad. It will be a tough hill to climb for Android to break that mindset in consumers.

  • Darkseider

    Went with an ASUS Transformer w/ the keyboard dock and have never been happier. The unit, when at home, is used solely as a tablet for everything I do. When on the road or work the keyboard dock is amazing. Extra battery life, USB host ports and an extra slot for extended storage. Not to mention the keyboard which makes remoting into units via RDP or SSH so much more a pleasure.

  • https://steamcommunity.com/id/m-p-3 m-p{3}

    With the operating system choice becoming less and less a critical factor, I think that tablets will find their way to the casual users who doesn't require much more than being able to access their online services, for multimedia purposes and even for some basic productivity tasks.

    They don't want the hassle of a complex operating system, while being able to carry it wherever they go.

    My mother not being very computer savvy, I think that a tablet would be the logical choice for her computing needs.

  • Lucian Armasu

    I think you are right up to a point. Yes, budget tablets at $300-$400 are KEY here for Android to get some market share. But this is only important until there are enough Android tablets out there to create a strong enough ecosystem of apps around Android. Once there will be say 20,000 tablet apps, I'm sure $500 Android tablets will do fine, too. Although, I still think the sweet spot for "premium" Android tablets is $400-$450.

    Android manufacturers really need to *let* Apple be the premium-overpriced manufacturer. They shouldn't price their products just as high. In USA, things are a little different because they keep the price at $200 with subsidies, but most people in Europe buy at full price, and when the iPhone 4 is like 700 euro, and a similar specced high-end Android phone is 500 euro, the choice is clear. But one key point here is that Android phones already have the app ecosystem behind them, so tablets need to get to that point to - and fast, which is a why a wave of quality $300 tablets might help.

  • Lucian Armasu

    Btw, many people don't seem to understand why Xoom was priced that high when an iPad was "just $500". They never bothered to see why. Check both tablets spec for spec, and you'll see that their specs are actually very different.

    iPad wifi only, no 3G, no GPS(!), very low res cameras, 16 GB storage, RAM - 512 MB

    Xoom - 3G, 4G (to be upgraded), GPS, 8 and 2 MP cameras, 32 GB storage, 1 GB of RAM.

    If you add all that up, you'll see that the price difference might actually make sense. What I'm trying to say is that this was Motorola's mistake. They added a bunch of stuff that most people weren't even aware of, and increased the price too much, even though people dont find value in those extras.

    So what does that mean? It means Android manufacturers can still make tablets just as high quality as the iPad, and for even lower price, if they just add the same low specs (besides the CPU) that Apple seems to put in there.

    • Jared

      Thats true, and you are absolutely right that "most people" couldn't give a care about the specs. I'm interested to see if manufacturers can churn out Sub $400 tablets so that they become more saturated...unfortunately in my opinion I think the margins are razor thin for the tablet market and dont see how much lower the price can go. Asus and Acer have put out some decent tabs at $400> range but they are budget manufacturer and we'll see if the mainstream manufacturers can follow suit.

      • Dominik

        I'm not sure if I'd call Asus a budget manufacturer. They have good prices yes, but quality of their stuff is usually top notch.

  • Max Graf

    Im very anxious to get my hands on my pre-ordered 16GB toshiba thrive. The price was in the right ballpark to make enough of a difference considering the feature set, which sets it slightly apart from most: replaceable battery (a major plus) full USB port, full SD card slot.
    The full USB opens a lot of possibilities, from flash drives and external HDs, to full keyboards and mice, if storage or use are an issue. IPS screen is nice as well.
    The size and weight (not slim, not sexy/small like the iThings) are actually preferable; With most tablets, I feel like im afraid id drop the shiny thing and smash it within a week. The rubber, textured back on the clunky toshiba makes me feel a bit more reassured. In the end, its 1.6lbs, so not really heavier than several of the other android tabs out there, though more than some. Is .6 lbs enough to make me buy differently? I like toshibas track record with portables as well. SO, in the end: solid, non-slip, unique features, price point. These were my reasons for choosing the thrive over the asus transformer (the latest price for the keyboard dock I saw on amazon was almost 300$ more than just the tablet. No thank you!)

    • Timothy

      Completely agree on Max's point about being afraid of breaking some of the thinner / lighter ones.

      I was tossing up between the Transformer and the Thrive, but in the end, the usefulness of the dock won out, so I got the Asus. However, when I'm using it, it does feel really light, and the back is a little slippery...having a non-slip back like the Thrive would give me a bit more confidence as I'm a bit of a butter fingers!

  • Joel Mark
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