Android tablets have so far been a failure in the market – even by Google’s own admission. I think there are 3 primary reasons this has happened:
2. Consumer freedom
3. Apps (and not just the quantity)
First, Honeycomb was the initial tablet-ized version of Android and it has a pretty awful interface. It’s buggy, laggy and user-unfriendly. That will be fixed later this year when the majority of Android tablets are running Ice Cream Sandwich (ICE). But by then it may be too late.
Secondly, It can be argued that Verizon’s lack of an iPhone for the first five years of its existence was the primary reason Android was able to gain a foothold in the market. Verizon was the largest carrier in the US and Americans were asking for iPhones. Instead of sitting still and apologizing, Verizon and Google went on the offensive. They poured money into advertising that drove awareness in the public that there was an alternative to the iPhone. Verizon’s sales people were given training on exactly how to answer their customer’s questions about wanting an iPhone. So instead of walking into a Verizon store, asking for an iPhone and walking out empty-handed and disappointed, customers were shown a similar-looking device that seemed every bit as good as an iPhone. This went on for years, in fact some Verizon sales people still push Android phones over the iPhone, even since the carrier started selling it. So if you were a Verizon (or Sprint, or T-mobile) customer, and you didn’t want to switch to at&t for a smartphone, you got an Android phone.
The same is not true of iPads. Anyone can get an iPad because you aren’t required to sign a two year contract to buy one. Because of this, iPads may dominate the market just like iPods did previously. It was mostly carrier lock-in that opened up an opportunity for a competitor to emerge. And Verizon really capitalized on that chance, even calling Android phones on their network ‘Droids.’ I still know people who look at you funny when you ask how they like their ‘Android’ phone and then they respond with “Oh, you mean my Droid?”
Lastly, there are very few tablet-dedicated apps. Android market has something like 200 tablet-specific apps. Apple’s iPad has over 140,000. This is a gaping hole in a chasm that’s essential for any mobile platform to cross. And apparently Google’s not focused much on changing it, at least not in the way that you might think. In a recent interview with TheVerge.com, Google’s Android chief Andy Rubin said this about the dearth of tablet-specific apps on Android:
“Android’s unique in that it’s a single platform that spans device types,” including tablets and TVs, Rubin told me. “Fundamentally you shouldn’t have to have a third-party developer build his app twice.”
As soon as I heard this I immediately recalled Microsoft’s previous failure to popularize Windows 7 on tablets. Redmond’s initial attempt to compete with the iPad was to simply have all the manufacturers install regular Windows 7 on all of them. The outcome should have been obvious: the Windows 7 interface is not a good fit for a tablet’s screen size and usage. They’ve now abandoned this strategy and are now focusing on Windows 8, due this Fall, which has an entirely new interface designed with touchscreens in mind. If it’s as good as Microsoft’s recent work on smartphones (called Metro), then they may very well have a winner on their hands. And that’d be good because Microsoft is sorely in need of a win in mobile right now.
So Google’s approach to tablets in 2012 is the same one-version-that-runs-everywhere tact that failed MS just a couple of years ago. Tablets are their own unique form factor and require apps that are specifically developed for them. Anyone who bought the first iPad on launch day could tell you: phone-sized apps just ‘zoomed up’ on a larger screen don’t work well. Facebook for iPhone looked really stupid on an iPad until Facebook finally got around to releasing their iPad-specific version.
Obviously no one knows for sure what will happen with Android tablets but we’ve seen an eerily similar story before and it put Microsoft a few years behind in the tablet market. Maybe next year Google will be pulling a Microsoft and paying developers to port their most famous apps to tablet-specific versions. But if the next two versions of the iPad sell as well as the first two, it might be too late, just like Microsoft’s Zune was way, way too late to make a dent in Apple’s share of the portable music market.