Saturday, June 18, 2011

Why Android Tablets Fail


I don't mean "fail" as in "perform badly." In a world where Google's Android operating system powered the only "tablet" devices, they'd be magical and best-selling. But this is not that world. The iPad is the elephant in the room, and it dominates both buyers' and app developers' preferences.

By "fail," what I mean is that they're failures in the marketplace. The first "real" Android tablet to sell, the Xoom, was basically a flop. And the only one to make headlines or sell out these days is the Asus Transformer, which (perhaps not coincidentally) is also the cheapest Android tablet, at $399.

You probably already know the differences between the various tablets; how Android tablets have roughly equal specs to the iPad, and usually have some feature or another that it lacks, but don't have its 65,000 apps. This isn't about those differences. What it is about, is what the "tablet market" is like, and which markets it isn't like.

Confused? Let me explain.

A tale of two markets

Okay, imagine a market that's divided into two segments. One is an exclusive, super-profitable, high-end segment that's basically owned by one company. The other is the much larger low end, where the products are commodity items that compete with each other on price. Whether you're thinking that sounds like the smartphone market or the home computer market, you're right.

Unlike the Mac, the iPhone had a head start, which gave it the lead in both quality and quantity for a while. Android phones combined have recently caught up to the iPhone in terms of market share, but Apple still dominates in profits, much like it does in the home computer market.

This is the market a lot of people seem to think the "tablet market" either is, or will become. Personally, though, having lived through (and watched) the game console boom of the '90s, I think that it's more like that market.

Start the Wayback Machine

In the early-to-mid '90s, Nintendo and Sega were selling some popular name-brand products, the Super NES and the Genesis (or Mega Drive outside North America). These game consoles were middling expensive gadgets that were basically toys, but were selling like hotcakes to people who wanted one.

Other companies saw this booming "game console market" and thought, "I've gotta get me some of that." But even companies that were successful in other markets failed to make a dent. Remember the Apple Pippin? No? Well, neither does almost anyone else. Not until Sony's PlayStation did anyone else get their foot in the door, and Sony had enormous price and technology advantages on its side.

So, to recap: We have a "market" that consists of a powerful, name-brand product that people ask for by name, that is designed to run games (or apps) that work on it and nothing else. And on the other hand, we have third-party wannabes that play hardly any games (or apps), and that may have some kind of technological gimmick but often cost more and are harder to find. Sound familiar?

The tablet makers' dilemma

The problem for companies like Samsung and Motorola is that they can't just enter the "tablet market" on a lark, the way Philips built the CD-i. They have to make tablets, because the iPad has shown them that that's where the future is. It's eating away PC hardware sales, and everyone who tries one loves it.

Can Android tablet makers succeed at this gamble? I think it's more likely that someone will come out of left field and surprise us. Like Barnes and Noble ... or

Jared Spurbeck is an open-source software enthusiast, who uses an Android phone and an Ubuntu laptop PC. He has been writing about technology and electronics since 2008.

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