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.

1. Cost
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.

2. Apps

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.

3. Fragmentation

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.

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  1. sandeep Says:

    Motorola sold 250K units in 6 weeks (Feb 24th was the debute date). Thats impressive. Its a # 1 selling tablet on Amazon. As u move forward this year, you will see the % market share increased. Its wrong to say all Android tablets are failing. May be some but certainly not Motorola.

  2. Bob Says:

    I can’t believe you missed an obvious problem: Manufacturers are sending out unfinished tablets. I’m not big on Apple products, but when they sent out the iPad it was “finished” in the Apple sense of the word. That is, everything worked. Compare that to, oh, Xoom. I can’t remember everything wrong with it, but I believe Flash didn’t work, the SD card didn’t work and of course you have to send it back to them later to upgrade to 4G. Moto expected people to pay $800+ for an unfinished product? Why is anyone surprised by the big slab of fail known as the Xoom? Keep in mind this was the Android flagship. Our first glimpse of Honeycomb goodness. Add to that Google’s reportedly lack of support for Honeycomb adds up to a bad impression of Android Tablets. Together, Xoom and Honeycomb has the same ring to me as “Windows Vista” had for Microsoft. I have a rooted Nook and I love it. It does everything I want and I use it every day. Cost? $250 plus a little time to root it. That’s 1/3rd of the cost of the Xoom dud.

  3. PJ Says:

    “thedroidguy” may be his name but he is more then likely an Apple fan. Any new OS/Device (Honeycomb/Xoom) will always be at a disadvantage to the established OS/Devices. That doesn’t mean they are failing, but that they are, evolving and being perfected. The ipad1 had very few apps when it first came out. I know, I owned one. There may be only 70 tablet optimized apps but there are 1000′s of phone apps that work just fine on the Xoom. They just dont take advantage of the screen real estate. Lets give it a few years and see how the growth of the Android OS tablets go. If the Android OS phone growth is an indicator, Apple will be the minority OS in tablets, as it is becoming in mobile phones now.

  4. Nick Ertz Says:

    I agree and one add one major thing – at least for me. The Android manufactures have created a FUD (fear, uncertainty, & doubt) marketing world which works against them. In their rush to tell me what’s coming, they left me willing to wait for it. Why rush to get a tablet when Honeycomb is “almost here”, when 4G is “almost here” — I’ll wait.

  5. Geese Says:

    I agree. I’ve had my Xoom for a few weeks now and I’m still not impressed like I thought I would be. When is the update coming? Come on Moto, I’m trying to give you a chance. I don’t like IOS but they are creaming you guys in sales right now. I need this thing to step up more and fix your Honeycomb problems ASAP before I lose faith too.

  6. Ken Says:

    I have been a STRONG supporter of Android since it’s early days. Bought a G1, a Droid X, a Xoom, managed to sneak in a Nexus One along the way and even talked the wife into an Incredible. I have developed and continue to develop for Android based devices.

    Android is a mess and I am losing faith rapidly if not already. In the past 4-6 months, I have almost exclusively started recommending iPhone/iPad devices when people seek “device advice” from me.

    Android the OS:

    Android is slow and buggy, period. Each new release includes more enhancements geared to bolster Google’s bottom line than the end user experience or feature set.

    Android Market:

    The application quality of the Android Market is really quite pathetic. The market now seems more like a repository for apps generated in 100-200 level CS Java courses. Weak engineering and app design leads to poor performance, frequent crashes, and an appalling UI. You can always count on the ads working perfectly though. ;-)

    Android Ecosystem:

    Be prepared to wait. Wait for the following and everything: HuluPlus, Netflix, etc., etc., etc..

    Trust me, as someone who has “experienced Android” wait for Android to grow up. Get the Apple devices now and come back to Android later when it has worked out it’s identity crisis; if it ever does.

  7. Px Says:

    You said: “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.

    That’s funny when you compare your statement with the numbers just out on new Android phones vs. iOS. Maybe you are hanging out with too many Apple Fanboi’s?

  8. Sam Says:

    Don’t forget industrial design. If apple wanted to they could probably design any product and make it look gorgeous and well built like a plate or furniture or even ad light bulb. They have some serious industrial design talent over there!!!

  9. Erik Says:

    Google hasn’t released the source code of a “Tablet Ready” OS yet. Presumably they will within a few months (Android 3.1) and that is when things will start to take off. Right now Xoom is a failure, ASUS is a huge success (sold out).

  10. Jerry Says:

    I bought a Nook for half the price of an iPad. It runs flash and has a micro SD slot. I don’t need dual sided cameras, or 100,000 apps I’ll never use. In a year or two when we’re on Android 3.5 I’ll look at upgrading. Till then I can sit on my couch and surf the internet, read books and check email. I’m happy and I saved $250.

  11. Palfrei Says:

    For the most part, Android is unimpressive but for one thing: the widgets. Unfortunately, they don’t update in the moment.

    I have a Milestone and I really like it but I’m considering switching platform for my next phone.

    I don’t own any tablet so I couldn’t say how much better is Honeycomb compared to regular phone Android.

  12. Paul Teetor Says:

    If I look in the rear-view mirror, I agree that Android tablets have been failing. Until now. I bought an Acer Iconia this week, and it’s great. Does it have one bazillion apps? No. Does it have the apps I need and are they beautiful? Yes. Is it a solid machine? Yes. If other consumers are having the same experience I’m having, the Android Tablet has arrived. Finally. (And just for the record, no, I am affiliated in any way with Acer.)

  13. smarter than you Says:

    @Ken – You are wrong. Android is the most advanced operating system in existence. Right now. It’s faster than iOS and unlike iOS apps and Android itself rarely ever crash. It’s considerably harder to crash Android than iOS. Android is also more secure than iOS in corporate environments. Any experienced developer would know that Android is considerably easier to develop for than Android. Google’s Android developer tools are leaps and bounds ahead of Apple’s and have been for some time.

  14. Justin Says:

    Top notch article, I am a huge Android guy and in my spare time I am learning to develop for it. But your 100% on the mark with the Fragmentation and instead of the differentiator being the hardware itself, which ideally it would be, it is the UIs that each manufacturer is creating. Even if it were only hardware it would still be extremely difficult to keep up. In any case I do believe that Android will gain group but its software does need to get the kinks out. Honeycomb cannot move forward as slowly as gmail. Educational Moment, Gmail was in Beta for 6 YEARS! it took until Android 1.6 to get alot of the kinks out over the course of almost two years! It simply has to get done better and faster moving forward.

  15. inglesita Says:

    You did not even mention the rumored Amazon Android table – one more thing adding to the fragmentation and what Nick Ertz referred to as the FUD (fear-uncertainty-doubt) problem. Amazon may beat the #1 issue of price. They may be able to subsidize manufacturing cost because of the content they would easily sell on their own tablet. I’ll wait and see, too.

  16. Thor e Says:

    I’m personally waiting on the HP WebOS offering. What a perfect blend of non fragmented freedom. I’m typing this on an ipad2 which is plenty impressive but I love my WebOS and the lack of flash is much more prevalent than I thought. And just don’t like Appls MO in how they force their customers to work a certain way that just does not work for everyone but they think it should. WebOS. That what’s going to be for me.

  17. Skipuppy Says:

    I read the above with amazement and disbelief. I got the original iPad at launch. Talk about unfinished – no Flash so half the time using it I have to put it down and boot up my laptop or desktop to watch the video or see the graphic.

    I bought the Acer A500 at launch last week and it is fantastic. Easy to use, fast and who needs all those apps when you can browse the web and get to almost everything – there is still no Java SE support but I’ve only had a problem with that on only one site. Everything else works great. My Napster app works fine and the speakers and sound are better than any laptop, really quite load and mellow. On my home page I have what I guess you call widgets but what I think of as info-cons — icons that provide real time info without having to open the app. I have real time inning by inning data for the Red Sox and whoever they are losing to at the moment with Runs, hits and errors along with the inning info. I have another that shows the real time price of Gold, percentage change and dollar change and date and time of last update, the same for silver. The CNBC RT app gives me a headline and the value, change and percentage change for the Dow, S&P and NASDAQ. I have a live wallpaper with weather data displayed. None of that is available on the iPad. Honeycomb is almost flawless as I haven’t had any problems with it at all. I easily paired my BT keyboard to it and I’ve stuffed it full of music and added numerous free apps from the Market Place where it is simple to try one and then ditch it if it isn’t what you want.

    The games that come with it are great although I’m not really a gamer. Google Books was already installed so my entire library from my iPad was instantly available along with all my bookmarks.

    The A500 seems much faster and easier to use with fewer problems than my iPad which I really haven’t used much since getting the A500. I bought the MLB AT Bat program for the iPad so I’ll continue to use it for that instead of dropping another $15 to get it for the A500. The only app that I would like for the A500 that isn’t yet available is the Time Warner TWCable TV app but I expect that will be coming soon. Even for my Sonos system which just released an Android controller that won’t run on the large tablets, there is a free app that works fine called Andronos.

    I must just have gotten the golden ticket A500 because as far as I’m concerned this product is finished and smooth and a great value. The syncing with a PC is easy and works great, the USB port works fine. I can browse my local area network, get to my NAS and download a PDF manual or music file, it is all quick and easy -no iTunes to mess with, it just works.

  18. stanley Says:

    Well the market is new.. The only Honeycomb OS which are made for tablets are Xoom, ASUS, with the Samsung 8.9 and 10.1 coming next month. Problem is Google never put out a finished product first time out, it grows and improves over time. Just like the mobile phone versions it first started out at 1.0 and grew into the 2.1 and 2.2 which are x 10 better than IOS.

    They created a universal OS that works on different hardware so its going be rocky out the gate.

    Honeycomb future updates such as 3.5 or higher will probably be Hot without the bugs.. I’m looking more into the future.

    I’m excited for this market, because I can only dream about what we will be able to do with tablets as it grows

  19. Canuck Says:

    When you’re talking about worldwide sales, you have to look outside the US. In most of the rest of the world, iPhones *are* eligible for carrier discounts, but that hasn’t made a big difference, so scratch that explanation. Also, most Android or iPhone users aren’t heavy app consumers — sure, there may be more/better apps in the iTunes store, but when they haven’t even heard of 95% of the good apps in the Android Market, it doesn’t make a different. Android has Angry Birds — that’s all most people seem to care about.

    So why are Android tablets not doing so well? It’s simple — tablets are still toys. I don’t mean that they’re not useful, but a tablet in 2011 is a lot like a personal computer in 1981 — it’s a cool thing to own, but you probably don’t need it for your day-to-day work or leisure. Since a tablet is a toy, the people buying it are much more likely to be brand- or image-conscious, and image-conscious people tend to like to be seen with Apple products. When tablets become an essential tool, like mobile phones are, then you’ll see other factors like price and quality come into play more.

  20. Woody Says:

    Congratulations to the author for facing reality head on. I’ve been the proud owner of 4 Android phones and several iOS devices. The iOS is a smooth, consistent, polished wonder to behold. Simple enough for a child to operate, yet complex, robust, and stable enough to handle the most complex and demanding tasks. I really wish I could say the same for Android. In spite of Android’s “issues,” as a bonafide geek, I think it’s really neat (glitchy and often convoluted, but pretty cool overall). Though I would only recommend an Android phone or tablet to a dyed-in-the-wool propeller head at this time. Fragmented Android is just not “there” yet. What I can not stand however, is the delusional Android fanboy community for their petulant, thin-skinned rants and Apple hating rhetoric. Grow up girls.

  21. Ibuytechtoys Says:

    Just get a viewsonic g tablet and be done with it. Price meets quality, actually you get more than you pay for. Five input methods stock or custom rom choices, full Android market plus amazon market. I’m using one and have been since February. Haven’t looked back. My first Android device and I love it. All the so called problems are non existent and apple stock owner hype. These tabs are selling and each Android tab buyer has a different criteria. Try totaling all the Android tablets then try giving an analysis of if these tablets are selling. This article makes no logical sense. This is an Apple hype piece at best. As a result I would buy another Android device and will. And I do pay for apps.

  22. B.D.Kuchera Says:

    My galaxy tab is great. My EVO revolutionary. The android OS? Within 24 months it has eclipsed the iphone in sales. The same will happen with tablets. Stick around. Apple had a five year headstart on phones and Apple won’t hold. The market is too big, and Google is lightyears ahead in OS, software and search. Apple make 16 product variations. Jobs dies and the mystique is gone forever.

  23. Deckard67 Says:

    I love these articles. Almost the same article came out about 6 months after the G1 came out. They announced that Android was failing and would soon disappear. They essentially gave similar reasons as this article for the problems with Android smartphones. Not three months later Big Red jumped in the Android pool with both feet and released first the Droid (a universally accepted excellent smartphone) then the Eris (crap) and then the Droid X. Sprint came out with the Evo and the Samsung Epic 4g. Since then Android has exploded and Android has gained on Apple and it’s market share in the smartphone industry.

    I will agree that price was an issue with the Xoom, but with the Galaxy Tab 8.9 and 10.1 the Acer Icona A500 and the Asus Eee Pad all coming in under $500, the price issue is now non existent.

    I will not argue with the User experience of the iphone as opposed to Android. It is polished, smooth and almost bug free. Its similar to Microsoft Windows vs Mac OS. Mac OS is superior in UE, but because Windows machines are roughly half the price of a Mac, People will choose less expensive over quality more often than not. And in all honesty, while Windows is not awesome, it does the job (and I would argue that Windows 7 has made big jumps in the user experience category).

    Android is definitely not as polished, but it does work and for me, works well. I am now on my second Android phone (galaxy S4g) and love this device. It is not perfect, but no device is. I do love the flexibility that Android offers over the rigid ecosystem that comes with an iPhone. And I love the fact that I can see whats on my 4inch screen over the 3.5 in screen of the iPhone.

    Android tablets will continue to gain market share. There is only one place a person can get an iPad (Apple). There are now 4 (Acer, Moto, Asus, Samsung) different manufacturers who have put out android tablets, and there are more on the way. And if i remember correctly 4>1. Considering the fact that 4 (and more to come) manufactures will help to drive the price of these devices down, Android tablets will soon be much more affordable and available than the ipad.

  24. Joel Says:

    clearly on the apple kool-aid.

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