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.