Android for phones by any measure has been a success, while Android for “premium” tablets by every measure has been a disaster. According to IDC, the iPad held 55% market share of all tablets in Q4 2011. When you remove lower end tablets like the Fire and Nook and leave "premium" tablets at $399+, best case Android has approximately 13% market share, leaving Apple with 87% share. This incorporates sales from some very nice Android tablets from Samsung and ASUS. This is beginning to appear like the iPod market where Apple is squeezing every ounce of life out of the premium competition. So who is to blame for the fiasco and who needs to fix it? The responsibility lies squarely on the back of Google who in turn needs to fix the problem.
I was very excited about Android the first day I learned about it in 2005. The market needed another strong choice for client operating systems to ensure the highest growth as Linux just wasn’t making headway. I bought the T-Mobile G1 Android phone in October 2008, the Google Nexus One in January 2010 and many more Android phones including the HTC EVO 4G, the Motorola Atrix, and more after that. The phone apps were there, more importantly the popular ones. While the experience wasn’t as fluid as the iPhone, I and many others appreciated the openness, notifications, and live screens. While the market was very excited about Android phones, it was a completely different story for tablets.
The first looks at Android for tablets, aka "Honeycomb" were amazing. Honeycomb, on paper and in demos, did almost everything better than the iPad. The interface was incredible and looked three dimensional and “Tron”-like. Multitasking, notifications, Flash video support, SD storage and Live Screens looked great. The Motorola XOOM at CES 2011 won many awards including CES’s "Best of Show Award." The anticipation mounted and the ecosystem was excited…. until it actually shipped.
As I explored here, I show that the XOOM was slow, buggy, without many apps, without Flash, without SD card support, and sold at a $300 premium to the iPad at $799. New models and prices were introduced starting at $379 seven months later. Needless to say, it was a complete disaster. This was followed by Samsung with the Galaxy Tab 10.1 in June 2011 starting at $499. This tablet experienced a similar fate as the XOOM but not as pronounced because it more quickly moved to Android 3.2. The best premium Android tablet out there was and still is the ASUS Transformer Prime with its optional keyboard, but it also struggled because of Google’s operating system. Google then released Android 4.0, aka "Ice Cream Sandwich" which didn’t add meaningful features for tablets, but instead aligned the application development environment between phone, tablet, and TV. Android 4.0 tablets missed the holiday selling season and didn’t sell many at all compared to the iPad.
In summary, the following are the characteristics of what Google allowed to be introduced into the premium Android tablet market place:
buggy with crashes
few tablet optimized applications
few services at launch for music, books, and movies
price points on top or higher than market leader Apple with lesser experience
missing key consumer retail time frames
So why do I place this primarily upon the shoulders of Google and not the brands, retailers, or component suppliers? It’s about leadership. If Google had fully understood what they were walking into, they should have:
waited to release Android 3.0 until it was feature complete.
waited to release Android 3.0 until there were at least 100 optimized, popular applications.
waited to release Android 3.0 until it had full support for movie, music and book services
waited to release Android 3.0 until there were greater levels of application compatibility issues that resulted in crashes.
instituted some tighter marketing management of hero SKUs to assure their experience was flawless
The result of Google allowing Android tablets out the door before it was fully baked is that the operating system is now viewed by most as a liability as opposed to an asset. Every major tablet maker that I’ve talked to loses money on premium Android tablets in a big way. Also, anyone’s brand associated with the Android tablets has been marked as well. Motorola and Samsung both had premiere brands but I believe has been sullied by their association with Android for tablets.
Google’s reaction to all of this was to buy a hardware company (Motorola) versus working even more closely with their partners like ASUS and Samsung. Additionally, it’s rumored that Google will introduce their own Google branded tablet which will alienate Google all that much more. Does the Google brand lend a cachet’ to the equation? Absolutely not.
All of these issues and confusion benefits Microsoft right now. What was previously considered a free ride from Google with its "free" operating system now has turned OEMs directly into the arms of Microsoft and Windows 8 for tablet. What a turn of events over the last 18 months. The pandemonium isn’t over yet. With undoubtedly more information coming out at this year’s Google I/O, Google is planning Android 5.0 which I am sure will be positioned as the savior of Android for tablets.
The problem is that there’s no savior in sight for Android on premium tablets. We all know Android sells at $199 without much or any hardware profit, but how about $499 where the entire ecosystem can make money? Google needs to seriously reconsider everything they are doing with for tablets starting now because nothing else is working. The new plan needs to fully account for the needs of the silicon partners, ODMs, OEMs, channel partners, application developers and most importantly, the end user. It needs to find an entirely new name, too, because the Android name has been thoroughly destroyed in the high end tablet market.
It’s time to stop treating Android for tablets like a hobby and start treating it more like a business.