The Elephant In the Room: Android Tablets Failing
It pains me to be penning this article as Thedroidguy, but it’s no secret that Android tablets are failing at the moment.
When Motorola debuted the Motorola Xoom 10.1-inch Honeycomb tablet, estimates were that Motorola ordered nearly 800,000 units. An Android insider I spoke with today said that number was closer to one million. They were all but sure that the Motorola Xoom may be one of the pieces of “gear” given away at this year’s Google I/O conference next week.
We’ve all seen the reports. Analysts have low-balled Xoom sales at 120,000 units, while Motorola reported shipping (not selling) 250,000 Xoom tablets. Also, the Samsung Galaxy Tab reportedly shipped 2 million 7-inch Galaxy Tabs between the device’s Fall launch and Q1 of this year. However, the company has not revealed the Tab’s sell-through rate, because those numbers might call attention to an embarrassing fact; Android tablets are failing.
At CES 2010, there were more than 30 Android “Multimedia Devices” introduced. Just about all of them were full of fail. The hardware quality was weak, and they all featured resistive touch screens. In some cases, you had to punch the screen to make it work. That may be an exaggeration, but anyone with a Camangi WebStation, PanDigital Android tablet, and even one of the earlier Archos tablets knows exactly what I mean.
So now we have a new wave of quality Android hardware out there. Most of these tablets feature Android 3.0, which was designed for slates. The biggest competitors are the Motorola Xoom, the Acer Iconia Tab A500 , and the T-Mobile G-Slate. All of these tablets have good quality specs and should be flying off the shelves. But are they? No.
To me, there are three reasons why Android tablets are failing at the moment.
Android is a Google product; we all know this. Most of us, who are Android enthusiasts, evangelists, activists and developers are also Google enthusiasts. We use Gmail, Chrome, Gtalk, and Google Maps every day. Of course, when Google entered the mobile space, it was a no-brainer that its fans would quickly adapt to their mobile platform. Well here’s where that gets tricky. We are all pre-programmed to expect free things from Google. It’s in the Google culture. It’s one of the reasons free apps do so well. Paid apps? Not so much.
The next cost factor is the fact that, because Android is open source, you can find it on myriad devices from the super-expensive to practically free. Also, unlike Apple’s iPhone, Android devices are eligible for carrier and partner discounts. We’ve seen some high-end Android devices introduced for free at Best Buy, Amazon, and in carrier stores.
So what does this have to do with tablets? Well I don’t know that you could get someone who spent a penny on a top-of-the-line Android smartphone to shell out $600 for a tablet. Apple has conditioned consumers to expect the tablet experience to be very similar to that of a phone. What do you need a tablet for if you have a free phone that does the same thing?
Apple’s “Fanboy” culture is very different from Android’s “Fanboy” culture. Apple enthusiasts often buy every product that comes out of Cupertino. I know way more people who own an iPhone, an iPad, and an iPod than I do who own an Android phone and an Android tablet.
Are these cost problems easily fixed? No. ASUS has come out with a sub-$400 Android tablet that seems to be competitive with the Xoom and Iconia, but they’ve allegedly run out of parts. When ASUS ramps up production again, the Eee Pad Transformer may make a difference, but ASUS doesn’t have the name recognition that a Motorola or an Acer do.
The paucity of Honeycomb Apps is a big part of this tablet problem. Right now, the Android Market boasts nearly 70 Honeycomb apps. Android is offering the Fragments APK so that developers can build a Honeycomb app, and then port it down to phone versions of the OS easily. Taptu just did it with their interactive, somewhat-intuitive reader app. Hopefully more developers will take advantage of Fragments, but the problem is getting the developers to build Honeycomb apps, period.
Android’s open source roots and the ease of getting programs listed in the Android Market have given rise to whole new waves of developers. You have traditional, Silicon Valley-based developer groups with venture capital and angel funding developing for Android. You have medium-sized developer companies that, at least, have a sign on the door. And then you have the bedroom developers who literally get off the school bus and develop all night.
Honeycomb is hard for this last type of developer. Sure the big-time development companies get access to devices early on, but that developer getting off the bus isn’t. Every single iPhone app will run on the iPad. Some may be in that small phone-sized box. But, you can blow that up or use the app in that size. With Android and Honeycomb, app use for tablets is hit or miss. An app developed for Android 2.2 Froyo may run on Honeycomb in the upper left hand corner of the screen. It may choose to run in the center of the screen, or may not run at all. Without access to a Honeycomb tablet prior to development, it makes it hard for the smaller fish to develop tablet-friendly apps.
Sure the developers can use the emulator in the SDK, but it’s not quite the same as developing directly on the device. The same can be said for phones. I applaud Qualcomm for pushing out a developer device for their dual core chipsets (and previous chipsets). However this device costs $1,300, and in an ecosystem where people aren’t as inclined to pay for apps, that’s a cost some just can’t absorb.
We know that Apple is fudging a little bit when it comes to app numbers, and that some of the iPad apps are really iPhone apps. But regardless of how we techies look at it, Apple boasts 75,000 apps for iPad to 70 apps for Honeycomb. Sure, the Honeycomb tablet hardware can go toe-to-toe with the iPad, and in most cases really kick its rear, but the software–not so much.
Some think TapJoy’s in-app billing, carrier billing, and Google’s own in-app billing will make it easier for devs to make money in the Android market, but that is still far from perfect.
You knew the F word was coming right? Tablets aren’t nearly as fragmented as the Android Phone side of things, but let’s look at the current offerings (or just about to be released offerings).
You have the Samsung Galaxy Tab 7-inch, which is running Android 2.2 Froyo. We know from Samsung’s past record for updating Android that the original Tab may die with Froyo. Froyo is a phone operating system, and aside from some small things Samsung has tweaked for the 7-inch experience, it still functions like a big phone (minus the ability to make calls in the U.S.).
Next out of the gate was the Motorola Xoom, the first device with Android Honeycomb, which featured some 50 apps at launch. My TI-81 had more “apps” than the Xoom. Android 3.0 is a CLEAR winner in terms of functionality, but it’s not on many devices and it doesn’t function at all like its phone predecessors.
The T-Mobile G-Slate, Acer Iconia, and the ASUS Tranformer also all feature Android 3.0 Honeycomb, so perhaps we’re getting somewhere. However throw the HTC EVO View 4G, in the mix, which is running lord-knows-what version of Android, and you’re back to fragmenting in the Android tablet space.
On the phone side, fragmentation of Android has gotten worse, not better. One of the biggest culprits in creating the problem is Samsung. Last night, Samsung released the Infuse 4G on AT&T; great phone, great device, etc. However, any day now they are going to release the Samsung Galaxy S II on AT&T, which will be dual core, and have better specs than the Infuse. They’re also bad about fragmenting the Android tablet market. The Samsung Galaxy Tab wasn’t even 6 months old when they announced the Galaxy Tab 10.1 and 8.9, both of which are going to run Honeycomb.
Can you imagine what this must be like for John Smith trying to decide on an Android tablet? 4G, 3G, WiMAX, LTE, Wi-Fi-only, Verizon Wireless, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, ASUS, Motorola, HTC, Samsung, Acer, EVO 4G, G-Tab, Optimus Tab. These are just words to potentially describe the four devices I’ve laid out here, and doesn’t include rumored tablets by Sony, Toshiba, Dell, etc.
My advice? Next week, one of the first Android sessions at I/O is on Honeycomb. Watch it, learn it, and maybe the developer community can help stabilize the falling, I mean failing, tablets.
Thedroidguy is a regular guest contributor to Laptopmag. He boasts the largest independent Android following on Twitter, and he is one of the top three Android influencers in the world on Twitter. You can follow him @thedroidguy or visit him at www.thedroidguy.com.