Over the last week, I've read seemingly countless complaints about the lack of local storage on the Nexus 7. "Why isn't there a 32GB version?" "Why isn't the 16GB version cheaper? It only costs them $10 more to make." "An SD card slot would have been easy to put in." The list goes on, and the complaints seem rooted in a belief that a cavernous local storage capacity is a necessity, not a luxury, for most users.
Well, I'm going to have to disagree. It's just not. In fact, no person in my family with an Android phone (three) has ever come dangerously close to filling the internal storage space on their handsets - most of which are getting quite long in the tooth (the phones, not the family members). Sure, it's anecdotal, but they all pretty well meet the definition of your "average consumer." In this day and age, many people struggle to even make use of the local space on their laptops (see: immensely popular laptop that starts at 64GB of storage). If you "need" more than 16GB of local storage on a phone or tablet, you're in a shrinking minority.
There are niche users - audiophiles, hardcore gamers, videographers, and photographers all might demand their slates have a sizeable number of gee-bees available for use. But they really aren't part of the equation here - nobody wants to sell a cheap Android tablet to these people, because they all already buy iPads anyway.
There's another group that has been behind Android from day one, and strongly vocalized its support for the Android tab. And that group is composed mainly of power users, IT pros, developers, general tech enthusiasts, and people with too much porn. The last one might not be statistically significant. I consider myself a part of this larger group - and that's what got me into Android, when on a whim I bought a Nexus One from Google at the full unlocked price, over 2 years ago. But it's people in this group that have generally been the eager early adopters of Android tablets. The problem is that those tablets never really got out of this circle, and have continued to languish while the iPad has thrived.
And that brings us back to the measly 8GB of internal storage on the $200 Nexus 7. Is Google foolish to risk alienating these minorities that have been such zealots for the platform from the beginning by cutting them off the local data teat?
For once, I think Google was wise to ignore some of the stock dialogue from the "community" here about its desires, and to finally focus instead on something it never really has in the past: selling products. What does minimizing the amount of internal storage on hardware have anything to do with selling products, though? Won't it just decrease the audience for the Nexus 7? This is going to take a little explaining, so bear with me.
The Conundrum: Walled Garden vs. Open Range
As much as I hate the term, Apple uses a "walled garden" system for its iOS devices (and increasingly, its OS X devices) and the content available to them. Buying into the Apple ecosystem gets you a reserved slot at the world's best (sorry, it is) content watering hole, and most people are happy to pay up. Getting out of the walled garden carries risks - slower OS updates, and the real possibility that Apple's generous warranty policies won't apply to you anymore. Additionally, no iPhone can run non-App Store apps out of the box, it has to be jailbroken, unlike pretty much every Android device. Many iOS users are perfectly content having literally no idea what jailbreaking (rooting) is.
This is part of why Apple can provide versions of its devices with a lot of local storage (eg, up to 64GB iPad / iPhone). Very few people on iOS would use that option to get themselves out of the iTunes world, and of those who do jailbreak, many still probably buy apps and content, but jailbreak mostly to customize the user experience.
On Android, the situation is quite different. If iOS is a "walled garden," Android is something of an unfenced swath of open range. Millions of happy little devices roaming the digital prairies, thousands of different products, and a content ecosystem that, while large, isn't really the curated cornucopia available back in the garden. Android is pretty customizable and tweak-friendly out of the box, too - launchers, keyboards, lockscreens, browsers, and many themes require no modification of your device whatsoever. They just work. That's part of what makes Android so cool for enthusiasts and regular people alike, as I think we can all agree. And many Android devices also have expandable storage or a large storage capacity to begin with, giving users more freedom to use local storage, instead of cloud or streaming services. This is useful for many in countries where mobile data and internet access generally are expensive or sporadic.
Unfortunately, this freedom hasn't exactly helped get the Android tablet market off the ground. In fact, it probably has held back it some degree. The thing about tablets is that they aren't phones. People don't need to buy a tablet - a smartphone is rapidly becoming a necessity in our modern world, and becoming the primary gateway to the web, even (or especially) in developing countries. And that's part of why Android has prospered so - it provides the most cost-effective, flexible option to tens of millions of people out there. As a natural result of this, the market for Android apps and games for phones has grown quickly, though many users have the expectation that any truly useful app should probably be free. And most of them are - because they can rely on advertising revenue on a wide installation base (if they're in it for money). There are plenty of popular paid apps out there, too, but that market has grown more slowly.
With tablets, the story is different. There aren't tens of millions of Android tablet users out there. At least not with access to the Play Store. The most popular Android "tablet" by model is the Kindle Fire, which really kind of stretches the definition of what a tablet is. Some developers have embraced it, but for the most part, the Amazon Appstore seems to have experienced something of a stall. The ease of submitting, updating, and publishing an app on the Play Store is obviously a far cry from Amazon's often weeks-long quality control back-and-fourths.
But because there isn't a wide Android tablet user base, and because there are so many different tablets of varying sizes, resolutions, and software versions out there, it's hard to justify developing an Android tablet app. And the result of this, obviously, is a meager selection of tablet apps on the Play Store. There was an initial rush after the Motorola XOOM, but beyond that, the enthusiasm of developers just sort of died off.
Google wants to fix that. Tablets are, for mainstream consumers, media consumption devices - people watch movies, TV, web videos, play games, browse the web, and listen to music on them. For those average consumers, these activities don't require a lot of internal storage, most people stream data-heavy media. But when you give more enthusiast Android users a lot of internal storage capacity, they tend to use it. For their videos, music, and photos and such. This allows them to basically circumvent 3rd-party services and get by on their own (and more importantly, free) content collections. This means they aren't spending money on things like Netflix, Spotify, Hulu+, or as Google would hope, Google Movies / TV / Music. These enthusiasts are disproportionally the first to get on board with new hardware, and if money isn't changing hands, there's little incentive for content owners and developers to produce content and develop for a particular device (or class of devices).
By providing a single form factor and piece of very open hardware, Google is making it easier for developers to take the plunge into tablet apps and content. And by ensuring that users won't have the storage space to completely shun the cloud and streaming services, it's pushing them into being more likely to explore paying for those things. Even the enthusiasts. And that's where the $25 Play Store credit on every Nexus 7 comes in.
Sure, it gets normal consumers to explore the Play Store, but that free credit also gets the person who just never believed in buying apps or other content in the first place to give it a try. At least, that's what Google's hoping for. Google wants people to buy things on the Play Store with the Nexus 7 - that's why it's only available in the US, Canada, the UK and Australia to start with. Google doesn't have a reason to sell a tablet at cost to a bunch of people in countries where its media storefronts aren't fully stocked - they can't buy the stuff Google wants them to. Google wants us to buy Play Store content so much that it's going to subsidize tens of millions of dollars (assuming sales figures are at least in the low millions) in app / content commissions just to encourage us.
And make no mistake: the Nexus 7 is about making money. Mostly for developers and content owners, but for Google too. Google doesn't really make any money on Android, because it doesn't rake in much cash from content sales. The hopeful solution? The Nexus 7. Seriously, as much as Google is saying to hardware makers that the cheap, small tablet is Android's future, it probably really doesn't care too much what everyone else is doing. No one (except Amazon, perhaps) will be able to outprice Google with a truly comparable piece of hardware in the next year - it just isn't going to happen.
So, to bring this all together: Google doesn't want you to have a lot of local storage space. It doesn't want you to disconnect and go "off the grid" with your content. It wants you to stream, and use Google services. And more importantly, It wants you to buy things. By limiting the local storage capacity on the cheaper Nexus 7 to 8GB, and putting a $50 penalty (most of which is profit) on people who demand more, it has ensured that enthusiasts and regular people alike will basically be coerced into living with, and spending money in, the Play Store content ecosystem.
Google hasn't built some niche, enthusiast device targeted at tinkerers here (which isn't to say it's not tinkerer-friendly - it definitely is). This is for the mainstream consumer. Google wants to sell a lot of these, and it probably will. And when regular people start buying this tablet, that $25 credit ensures they will buy content, and developers and publishers will notice. And they will want that money. And they will develop apps for the Nexus 7 (or make content licensing deals) in order to get it. It's not rocket science.
In fact, I'd predict most Android app and game developers will probably give up on tablet development for anything but the 7-inch form factor in the next few months - there's almost no reason to continue 10.1" development anymore. The Nexus 7 is where the money will be, and as a developer you get the added bonus of basically pre-optimizing for the display size of the only other popular Android "tablet" (I use that term lightly) out there, the Kindle Fire. Suddenly, a real tablet app ecosystem starts to emerge, and that's what we've all wanted from the start. Of course, it's all contingent on actually getting people to spend money after that first $25, which is a big question mark indeed.
Let's hope this crazy plan works.