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Three things Google needs to do to kickstart Android tablets

I’ve been using a Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9 for a while, in addition to the iPad 2 that I regularly use. It’s a nice little piece of hardware – lighter than the iPad (as you’d expect from the smaller size), and with enough battery life and power to do plenty of stuff.

In common with almost all Android tablets, it runs Honeycomb rather than the latest Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS) version of Android. And, although Samsung have stated that it will be getting an update, it’s likely to be later rather than sooner – perhaps a few months. Of course, Android being Android, a bunch of hackers have already started on an “unofficial” port, and the beta of that has been enough to persuade me that ICS, while still behind iOS 5 in many ways, is a big step forward.

But the fact remains that Android tablets remain a long way behind the iPad in many other ways. There’s a lack of “showcase” applications, for one thing: the likes of GarageBand, which can sell an iPad in five minutes, simply don’t exist for Android. Then there’s the failure of tablet vendors to actually use ICS – amazingly, there are tablets which are still shipping using Android 2.3, which is as absurd an idea as Apple shipping a tablet with iOS 3.0.

So what should Google do? I have three suggestions.

Insist on ICS

In any sane world, this would be a given: Google would be able to insist that new tablets come with the latest and greatest version of Android, one which is designed from the ground up for tablets. However, because Android is open source, it is not a sane world. Any vendor can grab a copy of old source code, and build from it, and quite of a few of them have.

But Google does have a few levers it can use to pressure tablet makers. While Android itself is open source, neither Android Market nor Google’s suite of apps (Gmail, Maps, and so on) are. They’re proprietary code, which you have to license if you want to use them. So Google could simply insist that, if any vendor wants to license them for a tablet, it must use ICS rather than anything more ancient.

Make its own tablet apps showcases for what can be done

The second thing Google could do is borrow a leaf from Apple’s book, and make its own applications into showcases of what good design for tablet apps is like. Virtually every big release of iOS from Apple brings a new showcase application – think Pages, or GarageBand – that gives the platform instant appeal. When you show someone something like GarageBand running on an iPad, they instantly get this this is a lot more capable than it looks.

Google needs to ensure that is own apps make the most of being on tablet, and its record so far on this is decidedly mediocre. Gmail is good enough, but Google+ is simply the phone version blown up for larger screens: there’s no multi-column view, for instance. If Google wants Android tablets to succeed, this isn’t good enough.

Encourage developers to optimise for tablet

Likewise, the company needs to encourage Android developers to optimise for tablet. In some discussions on Google+, I’ve come across the same attitude again and again: you don’t really need to create new designs for larger screens, and it’s “good enough” to just make existing designs bigger.

Newsflash: That’s not good enough. Take a look at the way The Omni Group‘s OmniFocus looks completely different on iPhone and iPad. Look at the way Tweetbot takes the same basic design elements, but optimises the layout and sizing for the platform. That is the standard which Android developers have to reach for if the platform is to have a chance of catching up to the iPad. “Good enough” in this case really isn’t good enough.

What can Google do? First, rejig the market so that it’s easier to find apps optimised for tablets, so that the developers who actually do the work are rewarded with the attention of customers. Second, showcase more optimised apps on the front page. And third – and perhaps most important – cut developers a deal. Reduce the fees it takes from applications optimised for ICS to zero for a year. Give developers a real, financial incentive to optimise for ICS.

What not to do

What they shouldn’t do – but, given the signs, what I’m afraid they might do – is try and build their own “extra special” tablet, to set themselves up in competition with other Android vendors. Although this makes sense on the surface, it’s failing to deal with the real problems. As the Tab 8.9 proves the problem isn’t that tablet vendors can’t make good hardware. It’s that the software they put on it, and the apps which users then load on it, aren’t really good enough.

Much as I love my iPad, there’s nothing that drives forward technology like competition, and that’s why I think having good quality Android tablets is important. At the moment, they’re still only just getting close. I hope that Google takes the lead, and actually pushes things along a little.

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