Does Google Care About Android Tablets? Should They?

One of the nice features of Android is the operating system has built-in functions that allow smartphone apps to scale well to many different screen sizes. As Google can’t control the screen sizes their Android hardware partners create, they needed to make apps extensible to many different sizes. With tablets, however, this has been more of a curse than a blessing.

Android developers have not felt the need to create new versions of their applications for the larger screen tablet form factor. This has been a fundamental failing of the Android tablet ecosystem. Apple’s developers have been finding success creating new/different version of their apps optimized for smaller screen iPhones and bigger screen iPads. The same has not translated to the Android developer ecosystem yet. The real question is, why not?

Is it Google’s Business Model?

One has to ask if Google is to blame for this. One thing that always sticks in my mind about Google is their business model. Google makes the bulk of their revenue from search queries that happen through a web browser on a smartphone, tablet, or PC. What are people doing when they are in an app — playing a game, watching a video, messaging friends, etc? I can tell you what they aren’t doing — searching the web. Native software via applications is, to a degree, counter to Google’s business model. More to the point, the vast majority of apps in Google’s app store are free. Which means revenue from Google’s app store, while healthy, is still nowhere near their core business in search. In the back of my mind, I wonder if Google is not pushing tablet apps because of the fear it impacts their search revenue. The point gets even more interesting when we observe how tablets are used in the same way as PCs in terms of web browsing. Google’s desktop search is still a healthy percentage of their revenue and, if tablets took away from that, it would make an impact.

Ultimately, developers are in the driver’s seat. They have to know they can make money on their apps and that optimizing their apps for the tablet form factor is a worthwhile investment. For whatever the reason, it appears this is not an investment developers feel is worth making. Yet this point is fascinating given there are more Android tablets in the world than iPads. However, developers are succeeding more with tablet optimized apps for iPad than they are with Android. If Google is serious about the tablet platform with regard to apps, then this is the first issue they need to solve.

Consumer vs. Enterprise

While the absence of dedicated tablet apps is an issue in the consumer marketplace, it is less of an issue in the commercial sector because, for the most part, enterprises are deploying their own custom applications. In this case, the enterprise is the developer and can create apps optimized for whatever screen size they choose. However, even with that reality, the iPad is still king in the enterprise. Samsung is hoping to add more software optimization to give their tablet products more appeal but, at the end of the day, the dearth in optimized applications will play a role in how consumers think about one tablet over another.

The Tablet is not a Smartphone

The key point about tablets and their upside is they are not smartphones. In my opinion, to be limited to running smartphone applications on your tablet is the same as being limited to running smartphone applications on your PC. One would not tolerate smartphone apps on their PC and one should not tolerate smartphone apps on their tablet. The tablet platform is loaded with potential and the large screen should be taken advantage of. Hopefully, Google recognizes they have an issue on their hands. If they want Android to become the tablet computing platform it can be then they must bring the Android ecosystem on board and envision a bigger picture for Android tablets and its role in personal computing.

This is a fascinating dynamic in the Google tablet story. There is mounting evidence of the severe bifurcation of the tablet market. Apple owns the high end with the iPad and many no-name vendors seem to be selling the majority share in the low end. But these low cost tablets are not being used in ways that benefit Google — rather, they are functioning as disposable pieces of glass and are taking shape as more of a utility than a computing device. Ultimately, I am not sure Google cares and, at this point, any attempt to try to create a robust development environment for dedicated tablet apps would be a fruitless endeavor.

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Ben Bajarin

Ben Bajarin is a Principal Analyst and the head of primary research at Creative Strategies, Inc - An industry analysis, market intelligence and research firm located in Silicon Valley. His primary focus is consumer technology and market trend research and he is responsible for studying over 30 countries. Full Bio

13 thoughts on “Does Google Care About Android Tablets? Should They?”

  1. I think there are several misunderstandings:
    1- Tab apps used to be lacking few years back, many commentators (perhaps with an agenda ?) are still harping on that. The apps I use all have good Tablet layouts: gReader, Opera (or any browser, really), ES File Explorer, AOSP Mail, AOSP Calendar, Docs/Sheets/Slides, Keep, most games…
    1b- In the same vein, apps that are good on iOS often are not that good on Android, so lazy commentators that don’t research best-in-class but just go for what they know get a false impression.
    2- contrary to iOS, Android does not have separate Tablet apps, just a separate layout (or 2, or 3) within the same app (only one listing in the PlayStore). Agreed, some apps do suck, I hear the official Twitter one is bad – but that there are several tablet-optimized alternatives to it.
    3- Android’s Tablet extras get discounted because they have no iOS equivalent: Widgets, mouse/pen support, Split-screen or floating windows multitasking, XL tablets (12-13″…). All those are game changers for serious Tablet users… yet very rarely get mentioned, don’t they ?

    1. Not for tablets, because the tablet user or the one that is the perceived target (iPad users) desire simplicity over complication. I think the great Android apps which I have used, are made by those who want more complex (power user) solutions because they are making what they want not what the mass market wants.

      The disconnect has everything to do with the iPad user wanting an experience better than that of the PC because the PC over-serves their needs. Similarly the power of Android tablets over-serves their needs. Android is ultimately the best platform for power users (on both tablets and smartphones) but that is not the mass market user.

      1. For this perceived target, in some ways, certainly not all, doesn’t Android over serve their needs? Android gives access to the filesystem, for instance. SD cards are available, as is legitimate sideloading. Control freak users prefer Android for many the opposite reasons iPad users choose iPads.

  2. I wonder if Google’s “lack” of attention on optimized tablet apps has to do with them thinking there may not be as big a market for users that desire tablet (or iPad) type of apps. Seems like their focus is more on Chromebook (ChromeOS) as the device category that could be bigger than tablets. So for Google, they seem more focused on the following;

    Wearables (Android Wear)
    Smartphones (Android)
    Chromebook (ChromeOS)
    Cars (Android Auto)

    I can’t remember if it was in a tweet or an article, but I remember reading by Ben Thompson where he mentioned that the average mainstream user’s computing needs could be completely served by a smartphone + Chromebook combination.

  3. Before reading, I was prepared to object to the title, but it turns out that it’s quite fitting. Well done.

    Well, IMO the answer is “no”. Google is no more responsible for their developers as MS is for theirs. There will be good applications and there will be bad applications. Google has freely provided a platform for applications, period. Any critique on the quality is between the user and the developer. In spite of rampant curation, there’s tons of crap in the iOS App Store. Is that Apple’s fault? Only in the sense that they curate and there’s still a majority of junk. So, in a sense, it’s a failed curation.

    1. I guess what I still can’t understand is why. I’m not sure if this is a systemic issue within Google or philosophical, strategic, or something else. I’ve had many discussions with tablet OEMS and their dealing with Google on this and the whole situation is a head scratcher. Even those working closely with them can’t seem to figure out the lack of priority.

      I think the tablet market is huge, and much bigger than many think. Largely because of the shift to utility I keep talking about. I could see tablets (blank pieces of smart glass) outnumbering humans easily in each household and out in the world. Android will likely run on these utility tablets so I’d think Google wants to have some part of them.

      Every year I keep thinking Google will straighten this out and then I see now progress. A part of me still thinks the Chrome based tablet is their ultimate thinking about this category.

      1. To make sense of this, I think you need to look at corporate incentives.

        Google is stuck with all of the costs of developing/maintaining Android; business answer: try to keep development costs down.

        Mobile/tablet use cannibalises time spent doing search on big screen PCs; business answer: strangle the product that tries to hurt the main business (desktop search).

        Leakage to free riders such as OEMs, developers, competitors in general; business answer: try to tie users to Google’s internet properties and avoid developing features that reduce browser usage.

        In Google’s main business model, the customer is the product being sold to advertisers; the technology (Android) can only be pursued to the extent that it generates valuable clicks. Google has difficulty in monetising Android on 1) mobile phones because there is little screen space for advertising and the conversion rate to purchasing is too low and 2) tablets because the bulk of valuable customers are on Apple (i.e. focussing on iOS users may have a higher payoff).

        In short, giving away technology (in this case Android) cannot be made to work absent a business model that monetises the effort. Anybody at Google who wants to make Android a success on tablets will need to fight the incentive infrastructure at Google (and will lose).

        1. Anybody at Google who wants to make Android a success on tablets will need to fight the incentive infrastructure at Google (and will lose).

          That’s probably what happened to Andy Rubin.

  4. Although Android tablets may be lacking in optimized apps, they do have a rather good browser. Therefore, I find it baffling that Android tablets are not even used much for web browsing.

    The lack of web usage suggests that Android tablets may have a more fundamental problem than the lack of apps. If the lack of optimized apps was the only problem, I would expect to see more web usage, not less. The fact that we are seeing less web usage indicates that from the onset, customers do not plan to use Android tablets in the same way as iPads. Instead, it appears that customers don’t really consider iPads and Android tablets to be in the same league, and they use them in different ways regardless of their capabilities (which are at least similar in web browsing). This is my current hypothesis.

    If this is true, then encouraging developers to write optimized apps will not solve the problem. The availability/scarcity of high quality apps in itself may not matter much. Instead, the problem may be in marketing and positioning.

    Even since the original Kindle Fire, Android tablets have always been extremely cheap; maybe too cheap. Samsung has reportedly given away or bundled their Galaxy Tabs. Maybe this has been a mistake in product positioning. Maybe this has given consumers the impression that Android tablets are not very capable.

    My hunch is that even if Google somehow manages to improve the Android tablet ecosystem, it will not solve the problem. They have to improve the way these tablets are being sold. They have to distance themselves from the super cheap tablets and the ones that are being either given away or subsidized. They have get consumers to take Android tablets seriously. This is however, a path that Google is very unlikely to take.

    1. I threw this out there to discuss because I think it is interesting. The whole shift in tablet from compute to utility makes this category enormous. I can see these type devices all over the home and city all doing very different things. I think the challenge to Google is that if the tablet were to be more computer than utility then it would benefit them more. However, as the utility angle plays out it doesn’t benefit their business model as much. It is a conundrum for them, how can they empower the compute side and the utility part at the same time? Similar to the Android conundrum I wrote about in my mobile report a week ago.

      The open-ness of Android is causing it to be used in many ways that do not benefit Google. This is a blessing and a curse for them and one that this tablet issues highlight in a specific way. It ultimately gives me less faith that Android is a player in the more computer tablet market were iPad dominates and thus becomes just a bios or cheap pieces of smart glass tablets. Not good for Google in really any way as far as I can tell.

      1. Respectfully, though Android will need to change, the “computer tablet” market for Android is more limited by ARM vs. Intel than anything else. If number crunching matters, not locale or form, then tablets lose.

        In the end, it’s part of the benefit of the SP3, which is still about 20-30% slower than a desktop CPU.

      2. I totally agree. It will be very hard for Google to benefit from Android tablets. And I think your introduction of the terms “computer tablet” and “utility tablet” is very necessary. I particularly like the word “utility tablet” because that seems to be very much what they are.

        One think that I was concerned about in the later half of 2014 was the emergence of the utility tablets and how they would benefit Google while negatively affecting iPad sales. I wondered whether consumers who had acquired utility tablets would someday realize that these devices could also be used for browsing the web, online shopping, and even productivity. If this was the case, then they would see less need for iPads. These utility tablets would also effectively serve as Trojan Horse for Google services.

        However, looking at web usage and Black Friday online shopping statistics, it is quite clear that utility tablet owners are not doing this. They aren’t using these tablets for web browsing or shopping. The Trojan Horse tactic doesn’t seem to be working. And given that most of these tablets come with a rather good browser (Chrome), I’m curious as to why this is the case. I have a hypothesis, but I’m not yet sure.

        As you mention, the openness of Android could hurt Google more in the tablet space than in smartphones. One thing that I haven’t observed yet, but I’m quite sure will happen, is the proliferation of AOSP utility tablets. As Benedict Evans often mentions, out of all the Google Services, Google Maps is probably the one that is the most essential. However many utility tablets won’t need Maps. Hence it should be much easier for AOSP to penetrate the market.

        If we put the issue of Google aside though, I’m very excited about the new possibilities that utility tablets will open up. My hope is that if Google isn’t interested in earnest, then someone else should step in. I’m actually hoping for a player like Adobe to provide an additional layer above the OS. This way, Google will no longer be responsible for the Android tablet ecosystem; Adobe will.

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