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.
Now, a source tells us that CEO Larry Page, who seems to be hell-bent on competing with Mark Zuckerberg whether it’s the right thing for Google or not, had this to say to employees at a Friday staff event after the Search Plus Your World launch: “This is the path we’re headed down – a single unified, ‘beautiful’ product across everything. If you don’t get that, then you should probably work somewhere else.”
Page, for better or worse, has realised the lesson that Apple has been teaching: an integrated, focused, well-designed product will always stand a better chance of success than a product which is looser, less focused, but more “open”.
What I’m fascinated about is how this new direction will impact on Android – does that “across everything” include mobile devices?
I think it does. I fully expect the Galaxy Nexus to be the last “Google Experience” phone produced by anyone other than Motorola. I also expect Google to start having its own range of pure Google Experience phones, rather than just a single device.
In other words, Google is going to start controlling Android more tightly by stealth: it will sell the best phones, with rapid, regular updates that its erstwhile-partners can’t match. Within a few years, I fully expect Motorola to have overtaken Samsung as the number one Android vendor. And, what’s more, I wouldn’t be surprised if Samsung hadn’t forked Android and ended up producing its own Samsung-only variant, with its own App Store.
One notable thing about the new beta release of Chrome for Android: There’s no Flash installed. And what’s more, because of Adobe’s decision not to develop Flash for mobile further, there isn’t going to be any.
So much for those ads claiming Android ran “the whole web”.
Having said that, I’ve been playing with Chrome for Android this evening, and it’s really good. It’s finally brought the Android browsing experience up to the level of Safari on iOS, and in some areas surpassed it. The ability to instantly move from desktop browser to Android browser and get the same open tabs is really useful, too.
And one final thought: The appearance of Chrome on ARM makes it much more likely that ChromeOS will be moving that way too. And that means cheaper devices with longer battery life.
“A smartphone might involve as many as 250,000 (largely questionable) patent claims, and our competitors want to impose a “tax” for these dubious patents that makes Android devices more expensive for consumers. They want to make it harder for manufacturers to sell Android devices. Instead of competing by building new features or devices, they are fighting through litigation.”
“Google specifically gave permission for Motorola Mobility (MMI) to file a new lawsuit against Apple over its iPhone 4S and iCloud products, according to an analysis of the takeover agreement in which the search giant aims to buy the struggling mobile maker.”
The truth is, the average Android user is not the same as an average iPhone user. iPhone users surf the web more, they’re more willing to buy software, they’re more willing to install and use apps. Some of these stats aren’t even close. What I see as the fundamental flaw in the Church of Market Share doctrine is the assumption that users are users. That one platform with, say, 40 percent market share, must be in a stronger position than another platform with, say, 20 percent market share, simply and inherently on the basis that a larger number of users is better, period. What Apple has shown with the Mac, and now with the iPhone and iPad, is that all users are not equivalent.
John’s completely right. To give you a historical example that I’m very familiar with, consider the Mac market back when I first started as a journalist in 1995. Then, Apple was floating along with perhaps 3% of the overall computer market – and yet, in the UK alone, the eco-system surrounding the Mac was large enough to support three (and occasionally four) big, thick magazines with plenty of advertising.
Back then, Mac users were not the same as Windows users: they spent more, and bought more peripherals and software. Big companies spent a lot of money on ads chasing their money. Even Microsoft earned more per-user from its Mac customers than its Windows ones.
The problem back then was that Apple itself wasn’t in a healthy state, but the wider market was huge and profitable for the third parties that made software and hardware.
It is that the consumer is Google’s product. Android is a delivery system to serve the consumer to Google’s target market — the advertisers. So Google’s customer for Android is not the consumer (with the arguable exception of the Nexus phones), but rather the carriers.
He’s right, and he’s wrong. It’s a bit like saying “magazines are the delivery system to serve the consumer to advertisers” – it’s true, in a literal sense, but it makes absolutely no difference to the qualities of the product itself. Why? Because, like magazines, if the product isn’t attractive to consumers, it won’t attract them enough for it to also be a viable “delivery system” for advertisers. The moment you stop thinking that your customer is the consumer, you’ll fail to make a product that works for your real customer (the advertiser).
Just like magazines, in order for it to be attractive to consumers, Google has to forget that Android is a delivery system for advertisers. Just as magazines developed the “Chinese wall” system that kept advertising and editorial apart, so Google has to have a Chinese wall between the people who develop Android and advertising. Google, like Apple, has to solely focus on the needs of consumers.
I’ve recently been using a Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9, one of the newest generation of Android tablets running Honeycomb (an Ice Cream Sandwich update is in the pipeline. Even though it’s not significantly cheaper than the 10.1in Tab, I got it because of the different form factor: it’s significantly lighter and easier to carry around than the iPad I already use, and makes a nice contrast to the bigger tablets.
However, it also illustrates the issues with using an interface which is designed for larger screens on a smaller touch screen. Some of the applications which are designed specifically for Honeycomb have controls and buttons which are perfect for touching on a 10.1in screen, but which are just a shade too small to accurately hit on something a couple of inches smaller.
No, the reason that a 7″ iPad seems unlikely in the short term is because it would only have a shot at greatness if it had an interface and apps designed with a 7″ display in mind. A 7″ tablet isn’t just a big smartphone, and it’s not a tinier 9.7″ tablet. Building a 7″ iPad by essentially making the iPhone’s pixels larger or the iPad’s pixels smaller would be the wrong way to go about it.
Part of the problem that Android tablets face is that the free-form nature of Android development means that any vendor can decide on sizes and simply hack its own version of the operating system on to the tablet. If Android applications then don’t fit properly, it’s not the vendor’s problem. It’s just the user’s
I largely agree with John Gruber and many others than Roboto is a bit of an ungainly beast of a font, although it’s much better than the hideous thing it replaces. But I think that John is missing the mark in this statement:
This idea that designers who favor iOS criticize Android for being poorly designed just because it’s from an Apple competitor is nonsense — a bogeyman construct dreamed up by open source zealots who refuse to believe over a decade of evidence that open source UIs tend to be ugly, and that ugly UIs tend to be unpopular.
Being open source has nothing to do with it. Like almost everything in Android, Roboto is designed, used and built at the instigation of Google: it’s not like Roboto was created by an amateur font creator sat in a basement who wanted to contribute to a project.
Android’s design deficiencies have nothing to do with the source being open. Android’s design deficiencies are down to Google not being great at designing consumer products. Android could be completely closed, and it would still look the same.
When better equipped (though bulkier) netbooks can be had for $250, tablet-makers need to set their sights below $200. There is just one problem: the cost of the components currently used comes to more than that. According to the market research firm iSuppli, the basic TouchPad cost Hewlett-Packard $306 to build.
At the moment, as The Economist correctly points out, Google’s strategy isn’t working either:
But the ultimate killer feature that Android and other tablets have failed to replicate is the care Apple took from the start to ensure enough iPhone applications were available that took full advantage of the iPad’s 9.7-inch screen. Today, over 90,000 of the 475,000 applications available online from Apple’s App Store fully exploit the much larger screen size. By contrast, only a paltry 300 or so of the nearly 300,000 apps for Android phones have been fully optimised for the Honeycomb version of the Android operating system developed for tablets—though many of the rest scale up with varying degrees of success.
There simply isn’t enough incentive at the moment to develop applications which fully take advantage of Honeycomb. And Google doesn’t appear to be pushing developers to do it.
It’s not even out yet, and already the Lenovo IdeaPad — the Chinese manufacturer’s attempt to crack the tablet market — is getting something of a savaging:
The IdeaPad K1 has been in development in one form or another for a year and a half, yet it still isn’t ready. And even if it had hit the market a year ago, it wouldn’t have been good enough (at least in its current form) to go head-to-head with the original iPad. The K1′s hardware is chunky and cheap-feeling, its screen is washed out, and the software is unstable to the point of being unusable at times. It sounds harsh, but when you can pick up the iPad 2 or the Galaxy Tab 2 for just $499, the $50 you save by getting a K1 doesn’t seem close to worth it — unless, of course, you think there’s some value in buggy software.
So it’s shitty hardware, buggy software, and not even comparable to the iPad of a year ago?
It certainly isn’t getting anywhere near the point that Lenovo’s CEO, Yang Yuanquing, is after:
Apple only covers the top tier. With a $500 price you cannot go to the small cities, townships, low salary class, low income class. I don’t want to say we want to significantly lower the price, rather our strategy is to provide more categories, to cover different market segments.
So much for that. If Lenovo can make an expensive tablet this bad, just how bad will one be if they push the price down?