I want to ask everyone a question - well, everyone who owns an Android tablet, that is - how often do you instinctively reach for it, as opposed to your phone or laptop? I don't care what the reason is, I'm just genuinely curious how much of a "tweener" role your Android tablet has taken in your life. And after you read this editorial, share that story with me in the comments, because I'd really like to have a discussion with people on this.
I own a Transformer Prime. Know how often I use it? Once, maybe twice a week for a few minutes. At most - and mostly because I feel obligated to "stay in touch" with it. The only time I reach for it more than that is when I'm reviewing a game, or my laptop battery is dead and I'm too lazy to get the charger out. And when that's the case, I usually just end up using my phone instead, because it's already in my pocket. Actually, last week, for the first time in ages I pulled out my Prime and played a movie on it while I was lying in bed suffering from a bout of warm-weather insomnia. I haven't appreciated my tablet like that in a long while.
In fact, the last time before that was when I was on the 10 hour airplane ride to MWC and desperately needed some TV to watch, because I knew my laptop was too bulky for the economy seat tray. That was 3 months ago.
The Device Without A Home
Android tablets are a lot like vegetable cleavers. Stay with me here. They're a tool built for a particular set of tasks - if your tablet is the cleaver, your modern Android smartphone is the 6-inch chef's knife, and your laptop is the professional Cuisinart food processor with juicer and meat-grinding attachments.
Your phone is the most versatile of the three, largely because it's the most readily portable. The tablet can do much of what the phone can, some of it more efficiently, but it's also just not very good at a lot of things your laptop is - especially anything related to productivity. Your full-on laptop is the food processor because it's a pain in the ass to lug around everywhere, and you need to stay relatively close to reliable power in order to use it.
But the thing is, only Android tablets are really vegetable cleavers. And they're in an environment where everyone has $600 chef's knives that make them nearly redundant. They're this in-between tool that serves a narrow number of purposes that are even further narrowed by the existence of another, more generalist tool, and it's very debatable if they're even better at those specific tasks they're designed for (or worth dragging out) in the first place. More on that in a moment.
The iPad is like a bigger, sharper chef's knife. It does almost everything the iPhone will (imagine the iPhone as a smaller knife) - except better. Now, this isn't a perfectly analogy, so let's not rely too heavily on it. In fact, screw it, let me just say what I mean: Android tablets offer almost no compelling reason for their existence when growing numbers of people have modern, 4.5"+ display Android smartphones.
The sad truth is, everything I would do on a tablet, I just do on my phone (or laptop) instead. I always remember to charge my phone, I always know where it is (very close by), and with a 4.7" 720p display and Android 4.0, it makes my tablet look like little more than some wonky form factor experiment that exists for sheer novelty value (much as people thought the iPad did when it came out).
Morning email? Phone. If I have to type out something longer than 4-5 sentences? Laptop, because the tablet's not going to offer me any advantage typing in my bed. Feeds? Phone. Chat? Phone. Reddit? Phone. And there's a reason for that: the phone is smaller, lighter, and easier to hold than a tablet, and the tablet doesn't really offer me any efficiency advantages in any of these daily tasks. If I had a 3.5" iPhone, I might reconsider, but I still doubt my Android tablet would get much use. I'd just start using my laptop more.
The Secret (Apple)sauce
So if the iPad is just a big iPhone, and an Android tablet is just a big Android phone, why aren't Android tablets flying off the shelves like iPads? Let's take ad hominem attacks about "fanboyism" and "branding" off the table here. They're tired, stupid, and unproductive arguments lobbed like burning sacks of metaphorical dog shit across the lawns of tech blogs all over the web. And saying it's "because of the apps," while partially true, is not the sole factor here by any stretch of the imagination.
The iPad is successful because it fills a real niche among its target audience. Most iPad owners are, by no small coincidence, iPhone owners as well. And they were probably iPod owners before that. Apple took advantage of this intelligently. Apple already had a strong presence in the content market with iTunes by 2005, and the ever-growing popularity of movies and TV episodes purchased through iTunes made the iPad a "duh" decision in 2010. Apps were a key part of the formula, but Apple knew it had a large group of customers out there yearning for a device that let them watch their iTunes content on a larger display without having to lug around a laptop.
Android's non-app content ecosystem has basically no established footing. Google was so late to the content game that Amazon MP3 came preloaded on many Android devices (including the Nexus One) until early 2011. Google Movies remains a rental-only service. There are no television shows. And while movies and music will play across your Android devices, PCs, and Mac computers, services like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and of course iTunes, have already firmly seated themselves as the go-to digital content choices of millions of people.
This is but the beginning of Google's content sins. The Google Music app is ugly, barren of any useful features, and the reliability of streaming leaves something to be desired. But one of the worst offenses? The fact that Google Play's content stores for Music and Movies are so horribly useless for browsing and discovering content when compared to iTunes. It's almost shameful:
Hell, you can pre-order movies on iTunes. I wouldn't even expect this feature on Google Movies in the next year, let alone a comparable selection of titles. That's the critical strike one for Android tablets: a lousy dedicated media service and experience. This is what tablets are meant to be: mediums for content delivery. And let's not even go over the ugly, disorganized tiled mess that is the on-device Play Store.
But what about apps? This is far and away the most common substantive argument levied against Android tablets: the tablet-friendly app selection sucks. And make no mistake, it does. Compared to the iPad, Android tablets have an absolutely pathetic selection of well-made apps to choose from that aren't made by Google. Hell, even some of the ones made by Google aren't very good (again, Play Store).
Why haven't developers flocked to Android tablets for more revenue? For one, adoption has been poor (see: any Android version distribution chart). There's also the fact that Google basically closed off an entire fork of Android for 6 months with Honeycomb by denying open access to the source code, and that didn't do wonders for developers' confidence in an Android tablet platform. And only in the last 6 months have Android tablets really started hitting their stride in terms of hardware.
But we've actually seen a decrease in the number of apps coming out with specifically tablet-optimized UIs, with most developers lazily (though, as you'll see, justifiably) relying on the upscaling feature introduced in Android 3.2. All the while, Apple can now proudly say that over 225,000 apps on iTunes are specifically designed for the iPad. Google, on the other hand, doesn't release numbers for specifically tablet-friendly apps. Interesting, considering how otherwise open Google is about Android figures.
You may counter that Google doesn't want to encourage tablet-specific apps, but rather for developers to use API tools to make their apps scale well to devices of any size. You know and I know that the fact of the matter is that a phone app is always going to look like a phone app on a tablet - many applications require extensive visual reworking in order to maximize and make efficient use of the large display real estate available on a 10.1" slate. It's rarely a simple matter of "rearranging" things. Frankly, I don't care how developers do it - but there's no doubt they need to. I know a crappy, upscaled phone app when I see one, and it definitely doesn't make me want to use my tablet when I can get the same interface with a better experience using that app on my phone instead.
A final thorn in the side of Android tablet app growth is something of a sore subject for developers: money. Android users just don't like paying for apps - it's a sad truth. Android developers typically rely on ads for income as opposed to actual purchases, while the reverse is true on iOS. Ad revenue relies more on a wide install base and continued use than a paid app, as well. iOS developers release a second version of their app when it's made iPad-compatible, resulting in something of a double-dip - all regardless of how often people actually use the app once they've purchased it. It's easy to see the incentive compared to the situation on Android, where dozens of hours of effort to make a tablet-optimized app may culminate in little to no return for an ad-supported version, and probably even less for a paid one.
Apps are a big "strike two" for Android tablets, but one more major flaw remains.
The Sleeping Giant Is Awake
Yesterday, Microsoft finally announced its very own tablet, Microsoft Surface. Let me be frank: it looks awesome. While big questions remain about pricing, availability, and the RT version's app ecosystem, the hardware is absolutely breathtaking (the Type Cover keyboard / cover combo is brilliant).
My colleague Aaron Gingrich opined on the very real threat Microsoft poses to Android, and the tablet market is without a doubt the OS's most vulnerable point. The interesting thing is that Microsoft is taking a dual approach to the tablet space, by offering two very different versions of the Surface.
The first is meant to the target the iPad and Android tabs - an ARM-powered Windows 8 RT tablet packing 32GB of storage, a high-resolution ClearType display, and a magnesium chassis (with kickstand) that might even have raised Steve Jobs' eyebrow. It's certainly better-looking than any Android tablet I've seen, and the description of the materials has me drooling. And say what you will about Metro UI, it's the sort of interface a tablet is meant to have, and is clearly designed with touch in mind.
The other device, the Surface Pro, is packing an x86 Intel i5 and full-on Windows 8 Pro. Suddenly, a real professional tablet has emerged. With Microsoft Office. The idea of a "pro" tablet has been maligned since the iPad started making its way onto enterprise IT purchase orders, but that doesn't mean there isn't room (or desire) for a full-on Windows tablet experience in the workplace. Especially one with dual digitizers and a 600DPI stylus. Microsoft isn't messing around here - it wants to show everyone that a pro tablet can be made without sacrificing ludicrous levels of practicality. After all, the Surface Pro is a mere 14mm thick, and weighs under 2lbs.
Productivity is an area where Android is basically defenseless. Admittedly, the iPad isn't doing much better. While Google has now purchased QuickOffice, even their app wasn't that good. It's a usable productivity solution for Android, but by no means is it anything close to ideal. Productivity is something Microsoft knows very well, and you can bet it's going to leverage that advantage in both the Pro and standard Surface through marketing until it's blue in the face.
Many of us are familiar with the Microsoft of our childhoods (or 20's, whatever), and that's a Microsoft we basically learned to hate. A company that threw its arbitrary standards onto us with all the grace and concern of a Subway sandwich-assembler. Microsoft has done much to earn the ire of the tech-literate in the last 20 years. But in the last 10, it has done a lot to gain the trust of ordinary consumers.
Xbox has been a roaring success, and while missteps like the Zune and Windows Vista were black marks on what has generally been a good decade for the big MS, overall, Microsoft has made a massive turnaround in terms of public image. It's just not as cool to hate Microsoft as it was 10 years ago (though I'm sure that won't stop many people from doing so to their graves).
But Surface is undoubtedly the new Microsoft. It's the Microsoft that made Xbox360. The Microsoft that has invaded tens of millions of living rooms with little to no resistance. This tablet wants to be your friend - to play nice with your PC's media library, your Xbox and TV (SmartGlass anyone?), and your smartphone. Microsoft wants you to see the functionality and simplicity of tight software integration.
Google, once again, doesn't bring much to the table here. Google has no wildly popular game console. It has no vast army of personal computers running its proprietary OS (sorry, the Chrome browser is not analogous to an operating system, and Chrome OS is little more than a science experiment at this point). There's no amazing Google productivity suite (Google Docs is mediocre at best) that can compete with a titan like Microsoft Office. And Google doesn't have a tablet with its name slapped on it (yet).
Google's third strike, made worse by Microsoft's sudden entrance into the tablet market as both an OEM and software maker, paints the last strokes of a picture that doesn't look good for Android tablets. And even if we do see a $200 Nexus tablet announced at I/O next week, without a bevy of service and content partners or some truly radical changes to tablets in Jelly Bean, I just can't see Google turning things around this year for Android tabs. Sure, shipments will go up, and more tablets will be sold, but as I hope I've illustrated adequately here, a cheap tablet isn't the answer to Google's problems. It might help, but it's only a temporary solution. The real issues are much more fundamental.
Android tablets have serious underlying problems with content, apps,and productivity, not to mention increasingly large phones marginalizing their already debatable utility. Competition from Microsoft and Apple is only going to get tougher, while OEM partners producing Android tablets are likely to start getting discouraged by slow growth. With Microsoft licensing Windows RT, it may only be a matter of time before we see a Transformer or Tab RT. HTC and LG have already called it quits on tablets for the time being.
Fixing Android tablets is not a simple matter of getting developers on board with a Nexus device. It's not just about signing more movie studios and record labels to the Play Store. And cheap tablets alone aren't going to save the day. Only Google can do that, and it's going to mean doing things that go beyond developing an operating system and putting it in the hands of manufacturers and developers. That strategy may have worked for phones, but as we're seeing, tablets are turning out to be a whole other ball game.