I’ve been having trouble getting this Wired article about Android tablets out of my head since I linked to it on Friday. The reasons why Android tablets haven’t taken off just seem so blindingly obvious to me:
The most successful “pure” Android tablet line, Samsung’s extensive Galaxy Tab series, holds a pitiful worldwide tablet market share of about 6 percent — and this is across four different Galaxy form factors. Amazon and Barnes & Noble are doing comparatively better with their tablets, but these devices aren’t branded as Android products. Instead, Google’s operating system simply runs in the background, providing OS support for Amazon and B&N wrappers.
Remember this. We’ll come back to it later.
To date, tablet manufacturers that openly celebrate the Android name — think Samsung, Sony and Asus — have touted hardware superiority. In other words, if you want 4G data speeds, cutting-edge CPUs, and superior displays, you’ll have to join Team Android. Or so the story has been told.
This is true–but the fact that “pure” Android tablet share, however you define “pure”, is pitifully small simply indicates that the average person doesn’t care about specs. They care about what you can do with a device. And this is a question that Android tablets simply have had no answer for.
But now with the arrival of the new iPad, replete with fully modernized specs that neutralize the hardware advantages of the biggest, snazziest Android tablets, it’s all the more apparent that Google’s tablet strategy is more vulnerable than ever before.
I think it’s charitable to think that Google even has a “tablet strategy.” They certainly have an “Android strategy”, which is: give away the operating system to phone manufacturers who take it and do whatever they want with it, with Google sucking up the resulting ad revenue. But the phone market is not the tablet market, so what works for one doesn’t necessarily work for the other.
At this point, it’s glaringly obvious that Apple has the high end of the tablet market cornered. At $500 for the lowest-priced new iPad and up to $830 for the top of the line model, it takes more than chump change to pick one up.
And yet early sales estimates show that Apple’s new iPad is already a huge success. The Verge reported Apple’s Fifth Avenue flagship store sold 13,000 iPads in the first 12 hours of the tablet’s release. Apple itself has stated that pre-order demand before the tablet’s debut was “off the charts,” with more than 3 million new iPads sold in the first weekend of the device’s release.
Needless to say, people are willing to shell out major green for Apple’s new slate.
Android tablet makers are pushing similar high-end models, but alas, buyers aren’t flocking to the devices. Google stumbled right out of the gate with the Motorola Xoom, which was priced at $600 for the cheapest version — a hundred bucks more expensive than the cheapest iPad. The Xoom, as well as countless other high-end Android tablets, have not sold well.
And here we start to get to the meat of the problem. Apple has become so good at locking up parts supply that it is literally impossible for any other device manufacturer to beat them on price. At the same time, the iPad has two years of application support plus a rapidly maturing app marketplace. If Android wants to compete at the iPad’s level, not only do manufacturers need to figure out a way to make an iPad-caliber device at the same price (or more probably, a lower price), they also need to figure out a way to have people be able to do things with their Android tablet. Or more simply: why spend the same amount of money as an iPad to get a tablet which can’t really do anything?
And as we have seen so far, no manufacturer has been able to do both of these things. So what is Wired’s advice?
But Amazon seems to have found the right approach: If you can’t beat ‘em, undercut ‘em.
Amazon’s Kindle Fire went on sale last November, quickly securing a spot as one of Amazon’s fastest-selling products ever. The draw to consumers hasn’t been raw specs and features, as the Fire is a mere 7-inch device that doesn’t include any cameras, and offers limited on-board storage. Nor have apps been a Kindle Fire draw, as Amazon’s Appstore offers a mere fraction of apps compared to Apple’s veritably endless buffet.
No, for Amazon, it’s all about the price. The Fire launched with a loss-leading $200 price tag — significantly lower than the $400 to $500 price tags of branded, 10-inch Android tablets. And the Fire has destroyed its Android brethren in terms of market share, capturing 16 percent of the still nascent tablet landscape, and selling more units in a matter of weeks than other manufacturers managed to sell over the course of a year.
Google may be watching carefully, and reevaluating its options in the wake of Amazon’s success. Last week, rumors circulated around a $150 Android tablet that would be manufactured by Asus and serve as Google’s next Nexus device.
Amazon’s success is certainly something to watch, but they’ve done it by designing an underpowered device that they sell at a loss, the sole purpose of which is to be a vehicle for Amazon’s (admittedly competitive) content marketplace. They’re not trying to sell a general-purpose tablet because they know they can’t compete in that space. I have no idea what a rumored $150 Nexus Android tablet would be good for. Google has no competitive content marketplace, and the device would be grossly underpowered for actually doing anything with it. No manufacturer of Android tablets has been able to compete by emulating Apple, and I have no idea why they think they’ll have any success emulating Amazon. Here you really begin to see the limitations of the traditional PC and phone manufacturers. They’re being blown out of the water and have no idea what to do.
There’s nothing worse than feeling left out. Sadly, until Google can do a better job of convincing app developers to code for Android first, it will be hard for Android tablet users to feel they’re using the latest, greatest, coolest software…
What Google needs to do is borrow a trick from Apple, and make Google Play — it’s just-launched effort to consolidate apps, music, video and books — into a piece of lucrative real estate. Being featured on Apple’s App Store promises a hefty boost in downloads, so if Google can direct millions of eyeballs to its Google Play storefront — like Apple has done with iTunes — developers will fight to get on Google’s radar.
Remember the quote that led off this article? Wired is basically recommending that Google adopt the Amazon strategy, sell a Nexus tablet at a loss, and make up the money by selling content.
This is actually good advice, but there’s a problem with it: there is no way that Google Play become anything more than yet another failed attempt by Google to make finding apps and entertainment easier on Android. Google may have control over the Nexus platform, but it’s never been a big seller, and the rest of the Android space is a confusing cacophony of different manufacturers all putting their own look-and-feel cruftware on the platform.
If someone is looking for an inexpensive content consumption device, are they going to go with the cool device with the cool ad campaign and the cool mindshare (the Kindle Fire), or are they going to go with the no-name Android tablet with some weird thing called “Google Play” on it?
Kenny Rogers said it best: “You got to know when to hold ‘em, and know when to fold ‘em.” So maybe it’s time for Google to walk away (or even run) from Android tablets. Android tablets with a capital “A,” that is.
“Android can be successful as an underlying platform for companies like Amazon and Barnes & Noble in the US, but not as a branded platform,” Forrester analyst Sarah Rotman Epps told Wired. Instead, she says, original equipment manufacturers like Toshiba, Dell and HTC will adopt a Microsoft-based plan, pushing out Windows-based slates when Windows 8 finally drops this year.
Could Android do well enough for Google as a back-end platform that supports Amazon’s and Barnes and Noble’s custom user interfaces? Google’s search engine is still the default for the Fire’s Silk browser, as well as Barnes and Noble’s Nook, which means Google still makes ad revenue on all those served queries. Does it matter, then, that Android is virtually unrecognizable on the tablets?
Windows 8 tablets are indeed the elephant in the room–no one knows how they will perform or who will buy them. Like it or not, Windows is still a strong brand name, but if the struggles that Windows Phone 7 has had in getting adopted are any indication, Windows 8 is probably going to be faced with indifference from both buyers and manufacturers. Meanwhile, Android tablets will continue their slow slide to irrelevancy, as the iPad keeps racking up record sales.
At the end of the day, it’s all about the apps. The Apple II wasn’t a success because it was the most powerful PC (it wasn’t)–it was a success because of VisiCalc and all the educational software support it had. Windows didn’t become a success because it was so much better than the competition (it wasn’t)–it was a success because Microsoft recognized the value in locking up software for the OS. And the iPad isn’t a success because it’s the most powerful tablet on the market (it isn’t), or because it was the first tablet on the market (it wasn’t)–it’s a success because Apple, out of all the companies currently making tablets, took the lessons from the beginning of the PC era to heart and made sure that it was easy to develop iPad apps, and easy to find and buy iPad apps. It’s amazing that no one else gets this.
(But really, I could have just saved myself the trouble and simply linked to this PC Magazine article.)