Are the Latest 10”+ Android Devices DOA?
I’ll admit it, I have a love-hate relationship with Android. I love it as a phone choice, love it on 7” tablets, but think it provides a lousy experience on anything 10” display and above. I’m not alone as Android has captured 75% of the smartphone market but hasn’t had big success in the 10” and above category. Companies like Acer and Asus are now venturing into some very dangerous territory and some of their new Android products risk ending up like previous 10”+ Android devices. I’d like to begin with some Android tablet perspective.
It’s hard to believe that up until a year ago, Android had no tablet market to speak of. Android tablets had really been defined by market debacles like the Motorola Xoom. Samsung cranked out some interesting, high-res 10” tablets and Asus delivered some inspiring detachables, but none of them sold very well. Then came Google IO 2012 and the introduction of the Nexus 7, which redefined the volume tablet market. As Apple and Amazon followed with their new 7-8” offerings, the entire tablet market swung toward smaller screens and cheaper tablets. Even though there some excitement around the Nexus 10, on the whole, 10” Android tablets continued to sit, uninspired. What’s going on here?
The challenge with 10” Android tablets is all about apps, which goes all the way back to the first Android tablets. In fact, there are so few tablet apps that there isn’t even a way to segregate the app store to do a decent count of them. That’s when you know very few apps exist. This is a bit of a chicken and egg problem and Google hasn’t yet dug itself out of this hole yet. So why aren’t devs creating apps for the Android 10” platform?
Devs right now are confused about the Google large display ecosystem. I say “Google” and not “Android” because some devs see what Google and partners are doing with Chrome and need to first decide between Chrome and Android. They see Chrome notebooks selling well on Amazon but they are not seeing big optimism on 10”+ Android devices. Developers are confused and when it gets to the point of lock-up, stick with the safe bet, iPad.
In the end, it’s the consumers who suffer. You can install a 4” Android app on a 10” tablet, but many times it gets stretched to the point where the app is unusable. Imagine how that 4” app looks on that 20” display. Well, about twice as bad as the 10” display. All kidding aside, it is the consumer who feels the pain after they get home and try it out and expect an experience that just works. For users who stay in email, the browser, and a few optimized games it’s probably fine, but for those users who use many apps, the experience will be suboptimal. This brings us to the new Acer and Asus SKUs.
Acer has launched a 21.5” all-in-one with Android 4.0 (ICS) with a very slow OMAP 4430 that’s in the Kindle Fire tablet and Google Glass and 8GB of storage. Given what is under the hood, I can only imagine how anemic this system will be, regardless of the lack of apps. Asus has launched the “Transformer Book Trio”, a 12” two operating system (Android/Windows), dual architecture (Intel Haswell/Intel Clovertrail), tri-modal UI (Metro/Desktop/Android), and tri-modal physical (tablet/notebook/desktop). This is clearly not for the technology weary as bundles nearly every possible confusing variable to a general consumer. Aside from these variables, like the Acer AIO, it will stretch many 4”-designed apps to 12”, providing a less-than optimal user experience. Let me close in on answering the original question.
Are the latest Android 10”+ devices DOA? Yes, they are until Google can motivate application developers to create more Android apps that work well, and not stretched from 4” to 10” to 12” to 21”.
How Android Raises the Experience Bar with Nexus 7
As a technology insider who has actually planned, developed, and launched products, I have always believed it was important to spend inordinate amount of time living with new and emerging technology products. Only this way, can you get the “feel” of a product; where it is and where the category is headed. With regards to Android tablets, I have lived with every version of operating system since inception on 10” and 7” tablets. For every Android tablet version, I added every single personal and business account and used it as I would expect general and advanced users to use it. While I had experienced some very positive things about each Android tablet version, whenever I held it to the iPad, it just didn’t compare. Either my preferred apps weren’t available, the content I wanted was missing, or it just didn’t “feel” right. After using the Google Nexus 7 for a few days, I can say the experience is solid and a lot of fun, something I have never before said about an Android tablet.
Why Non-iPads didn’t Sell Well
We must first understand Google’s previous missteps with Android tablets to fully appreciate how far they have come with the Nexus 7. While I penned this post a year ago outlining why Android tablets weren’t selling well, let me net it out for you. Non-iPads haven’t sold well over the last year because:
- tablets were sold with incomplete collections or no available movies, music, TV, books, and games
- tablets were sold with minimal applications optimized for the platform
- tablets were released with unusable features like LTE, SD cards, and USB ports
- tablets didn’t “feel’ good as there were stutters and sputters
- with all the issues above, most 10” tablets were sold at the same price as the iPad
Think about the horrible stories consumers who paid full price for an HP Touchpad, Motorola Xoom, or BlackBerry PlayBook tell their friends and colleagues today. Given tablets are a new category and still a “considered” purchase, everything other than the iPad was considered risky, particularly for the non-techie consumer.
So why will the outcome for the Nexus 7 be any different? Well, it’s all about its integrated and holistic experience.
Nexus 7 is a Big Phone with Access to 600,000 Phone Apps
No one doubts that Google’s Android has been successful in smartphones. They’ve been so good, in fact, that Android even eclipses iOS in market share. This is why it’s so important to understand the implications of Google choosing the phone metaphor for the Nexus 7 as its it’s all about apps. Even today, Android tablets apps are counted in the hundreds and iPad tablet apps are in the hundreds of thousands. Apps and content are to tablets as roads are to a car, and consumers have access to at least 600,000 of these Android apps. It’s not only about leveraging the phone app ecosystem as the HTC Flyer were phone-based 7” tablets and didn’t exactly set the world on fire in sales.
Nexus 7 Uses State of the Art Hardware and Software
I liked my Kindle Fire when I first got it, but in reality, I was most impressed with the price versus the iPad than the experience. Over time, my Kindle just sat in my drawer at home and I used my iPad 2 then the iPad 3. I stopped using my Kindle because the web and mail experience were just so pathetically slow, and quite frankly I got tired of staring at pixels as I am very near-sighted. I attribute this to the cheaper hardware, a much older Android 2.3, a slow browser for complex sites, and a lower resolution display. I must reinforce, though, it was at less than half the price of the iPad 2 when it shipped and millions looked the other way as they were just happy to have a tablet.
The Nexus 7 uses state of the art hardware and software and at least for 6 months, buyers won’t have too many levels of remorse. The two main drivers of the experience are Android Jelly Bean and the NVIDIA’s Tegra 3. Jelly Bean, the latest Android OS, adds a tremendous amount of new features but, in short, enable:
- Project Butter which doubles the UI speed to 60fps so Android finally feels responsive
- fully customizable widgets at any size the user chooses
- voice search and dictation that actually works, as Google moved much of the logic and dictionary back to the client and off of the cloud
- fully customizable notifications, to see just what you want to see and very little of what you don’t want to see
- Google Now, their first intelligent agent
The NVIDIA Tegra 3 SOC is just as impressive as it has:
- quad core processor clocked at 1.3Ghz which speeds up tabbed browsing, background tasks, widgets, task switching, multitasking, installing apps, etc.
- 5th battery saver core which operates in idle mode, which saves battery life
- GeForce graphics with 12 cores clocked at 416MHz to play the highest-end Android games and HD video
When you add these features to the 7”, 1280×800 (216 PPI) display, you get a very solid experience that just “feels” good.
It’s All About the Experience
As the rest of the phone and tablet industry has painfully learned from Apple, it is about the delivering the holistic and integrated experience between software and hardware, not the ingredients that make it up. The Nexus does deliver a good, holistic experience, and not just at a certain price point. While what defines as “good experiences” are very personal, here are many of the experience points I believe will be universally appreciated:
- light enough to comfortably hold in one hand and small enough to put in a coat, cargo pant pocket or purse
- the UI “feels” fluid and very fast
- cannot see any pixels which can distract from the visual experience, particularly when using in bed or with near-sighted users who hold the tablet near their face
- the tabbed browsing is very fast, focuses well on desktop-sized sites, and bookmarks sync with desktop Chrome
- the apps and content users want will be available, at least in most countries
- email is full-featured and very fast, with no lag to delete, create, or linking to web sites
- notifications are subtle, non-invasive, and speedy to resolve
- live tiles are fully customizable and save time to see content, even eliminating the need in many cases to open an app like email or calendar
- with multiple apps running in the background with data feeds updating, it still feels smooth
The holistic experience is greater than just the sum of its piece parts, a first for Android tablets.
Nexus 7 Significantly Raises the Android Tablet Experience
As Ben Bajarin pointed out here, usage models will differ between 7” and 10” tablets. One thing I must add is that like the Fire, the Nexus 7 will pull some potential sales away from the iPad if Apple does nothing. This is an element that many fail to recognize. The analogy I will use to show this is between sedans and minivans. If minivans had never been introduced, sedans would have sold more. In parallel, without a Nexus 7, Apple would sell more iPads, even if they aren’t the same exact usage models or price points.
Will Apple roll over and let Google and Android slow down its march toward digital dominance? Probably not, as I do expect Apple to introduce a 7” tablet for many reasons and also as Apple laid out at WWDC, iOS 6 is very compelling, especially when connected with other Apple devices. Today, the broad tech ecosystem and investors see Apple as invincible, understandable as they have plowed over many of the largest companies in tech. If Google and Android start to gain credibility in the tablet space, what message will that send about invincibility? Apple needs to stop Google in their tracks and remove all of the oxygen during the holidays to maintain its dominant status.
One thing for certain is that the Nexus 7 and Jelly Bean significantly raise the bar for the Android tablet experience, something that has been absent for 18 months.
How Intel Could Achieve the 40% Consumer Ultrabook Target in 2012
There has been a lot of industry skepticism since Intel predicted at Computex Taipei 2011 that Ultrabooks would account for 40% of consumer portable sales by the end of 2012. That included skepticism from me as well, and I continue to have that skepticism. Rather than dive into that discussion though, I think it’s more important and productive to examine how Intel could conceivably achieve that goal.
What Intel is Actually Predicting
It’s important to understand what Intel means when they made their prediction. First, they are making the prediction for the consumer market, not the slower moving SMB, government, or enterprise markets. Also, the prediction is not for the entire year, it is for the end of December, 2012. That is, 40% of consumer notebooks by the end of December 2012 would need to be Ultrabooks. This makes a huge difference when evaluating the probability of this actually occurring.
So what would it take for 40% of all consumer notebook sales to be Ultrabooks by the end of 2012?
Make Ultrabooks Look New, Relevant, and Sexy
Intel and their ecosystem need make Ultrabooks perceived as new, relevant and sexy. By relevant I mean making the direct connection between what the Ultrabook delivers and what the consumer thinks they need. Sexy, is, well sexy, like MacBook Airs. The ecosystem must make a connection with:
- Thin and light– this is easier because Apple has blazed the trail and it is evident on the retail shelf.
- Fast startup– this is somewhat straightforward and a communicated consumer pain point with Windows today
- Secure– this is the most difficult in that it is always difficult to market a negative. It’s like life insurance; it sounds good, people say it’s important, then don’t buy it. I think Intel would be much more successful taking the same base technology and enabling exclusive consumer content or speeding up the on-line checkout or login process.
- Performance- this is difficult to market in that no longer does performance have a comparable metric and chip makers have appeared to stop marketing why it is even important.
- Convertibles- I am a big fan of future convertibles given the right design and OS. If OEMs can put together a classy, ~18mm design, it could very well motivate consumers to delay a tablet purchase. This will not work prior to Windows 8’s arrival, though because you really need Metro for good touch.
Probably the biggest impediment here is the “sexy” piece. Sexy is the “X” factor here. It’s cool to have an Apple MacBook Air. It isn’t cool yet to have an Ultrabook. A lot of that $300M UltraBook investment fund must pay for the Ultrabook positioning and re-positioning of anything Windows. This is a tough task, to say the least.
Steal Some Apple MacBook Air Market Share
Intel and their ecosystem, to hit the 40% target, will need to steal some of Apple’s market share. There is no way around this to achieve the 40% target unless they want to pull the dreaded “price lever”. Apple “owns” 90+% of the premium notebook market today and because Windows OEMs and Intel for that matter aren’t motivated to trash pricing now, they will need to steal some of Apple’s share. This will be a tough one, a real tough one particularly in that Intel shoots itself in the foot short-term by going aggressively after this one given they are inside every MacBook Air. So OEMs will need to take this one on their own, using Intel marketing funds as a weapon. This will be especially difficult given that Apple positioning isn’t going to be instantly erased by anything short term and Windows OEMs haven’t been able to penetrate this for years. Remember the Dell Adamo? Sexy, Windows 8 convertible designs could very well be the magic pill that could help steal share from Apple.
Lower Price Points
This is the last lever anyone wants to pull as it destroys positioning. Depending which data service you look at, the average consumer notebook ASP (average selling price) is between $600-700. This seems high, I know, when you look at what is being sold at local retailers, but remember that this includes on-line and Apple which has a higher ASP. Ultrabooks range from around $799 to $1,299 excluding Apple. This is well above the prices it would need to be to achieve the 40% goal. There are two ways to lower price; lower the cost or lower margins. I believe you will see a little bit of both.
As volumes increase, there will be immediate cost savings in expensive mechanicals like aluminum, plastic, and composites. Custom cooling solutions are very expensive required to cool thin chassis between 16-21mm in thickness. Tooling and design cost can be amortized over greater volumes to decrease the cost per unit. Intel Ivy Bridge, available in April 2012, will provide a shrink from 32nm to 22nm which would theoretically allow a lower price point at the same performance point, although I am sure Intel isn’t leading with that promise. Intel would much rather provide large marketing subsidies and pay NRE (non recurring engineering) costs to retailers and OEMS to design and promote the Ultrabook category. SSD is a tricky one to predict given spinning hard drive supply issues. Spinning hard drive price increases allow SSD makers to increase prices which doesn’t bode well for Ultrabook BOM costs in the short term.
Leverage Windows 8 Effect
The expected Windows 8 launch for the holiday of 2012 could help the Ultrabook cause on many fronts. First, it may give consumers a reason to consider buying a new laptop or notebook. I fully expect consumers to delay purchases and wait for Windows 8 to arrive. This could create a bubble in Q4 that, again, helps achieve the 40% goal.
Finally, Ultrabooks need to get off to a solid start in 2012. Consumer influencers and the rest of the ecosystem needs to perceive UltraBooks as a success in 1H/2012 for them to “double-down” for 2H/2012. CES will be one tactic to do this, where I expect to see 100s of designs on display to demonstrate OEM acceptance to the press, analysts, and retail partners. Intel’s Ivy Bridge will give another boost in April, followed by the Windows 8 launch. Retailers cannot be stuck with excess inventory and cannot make drastic price cuts that would only deposition the category. Currently there is skepticism on the entire Ultrabook value proposition and the price points they can command so there is a lot of work to be done.
Will Ultrabooks Achieve the 40% Target by End of 2012
While this analysis is about what it would take to achieve the goal, I must weigh on what I think will happen. I like to bucket these kinds of things into “possible” and “probable”. I believe that if the Ultrabook ecosystem could accomplish everything outlined above, Ultrabooks could hit 40% of consumer notebook sales by the end of 2012. So it is possible, BUT, I don’t see it as probable, primarily due to the low price points that it will need to be hit. There just isn’t enough time to reposition a Windows notebook as premium and either raise price points of the Windows notebook category or steal Apple market share.
The Asus PadFone is a Glimpse of the Future
As a part of my work as an industry analyst I do a great deal of thinking about the future. Many of the projects we get pulled into and asked to add analysis on are related to the distant not the near future. This happens to be one of the things I love most about my job, thinking about the future and imaging what the world of technology will be like 5 years out.
Pat Moorhead wrote an article yesterday highlighting Why Convertible PC’s Are About To Get Very Popular. I agree these product designs have a place in the market and we will likely see a good deal of hardware experimentation through 2013. I however think another product idea may have much longer staying power.
Without going into too much detail on things I can’t go into much detail on, I want to use the Asus PadFone as an example of a future I think is highly possible. This future is one where the smart phone is the center of our personal connected ecosystem and in essence becomes the brains that power all the other screens in our lives.
We talk a great deal about the “smart screens” which will invade consumers lives and homes. Although it certainly looks like we are heading in this direction, I sometimes ask: “if the smartest screen is in our pocket why couldn’t that device power the others.” Thus eliminating the need to have a high performance CPU in all my screens.
The Asus PadFone is an example of this concept. In Asus’ solution the smart phone is the most important device in the ecosystem because it is the device with the brains. The smart phone has the CPU, the OS and the software. In the PadFone solution the smart phone slips into the tablet thus giving you a two in one solution.
The Motorola Atrix 4G employs a similar idea where the Atrix can be docked with a laptop shell. The laptop shell simply has a battery and a screen and the Atrix provides the rest of the intelligence needed to have a full laptop.
Both of these designs highlight something that I think gives us a glimpse of how our future connected gadgetry may come together. The biggest indicator for this future reality is the trajectory every major semiconductor company is heading in. Namely very small multi-CPU cores performing at very low power consumption levels.
We can envision a future where we could have an eight core processor in our mobile phones. An eight core mobile chipset would be more than adequate to power every potential smart screen we can dream up. In this model you would simply dock your phone into every screen size possible in order to make every screen you own “smart.” Docking your phone to your TV would create a “smart TV” for example. Docking your phone with you car would create a “smart car.” You could also purchase laptop docks, desktop docks, tablet docks, smart mirror docks, smart refrigerator docks, etc.
What’s also interesting about this model is that your phone can also power devices that don’t have screens. In this scenario you would be able to use your smart phone to interact with all your appliances without screens like washer, dryer, coffee pot, and others. We call these specific interactions “micro-experiences” where you use your phone to have experiences with non-screen appliances.
It is obviously way to early to conclude when or if the market could adopt a solution like this. None-the-less it is an interesting future to think about.
2012: A Year of Innovation?
One of the things I look at in order to get an idea of what the next years worth of innovations will bring is the semiconductor industry. Given what I am seeing from the various ARM vendors like NVIDIA, Qualcomm, Marvell and TI as well as from Intel and AMD, I am encouraged.
The primary industry that stands to gain from new semiconductor innovations is the mobile industry. Namely the hot category of tablets and smart phones. That is not to say that the PC will be left out, for example Intel brought attention to the concept of “Ultra-Books” at this years Computex.
Continue reading 2012: A Year of Innovation?
Will UltraBooks Make PCs Interesting Again?
I ask this question specifically because this is the question those who make PC’s are asking. In particular this initiative to make the PC relevant again is being driven by Intel and in part by AMD. This sounds rather silly because of course the PC is still relevant, the fact of the matter is the PC has become boring.
PC’s are mainstream and there isn’t much interesting about them these days. Consumers are familiar with them and understand what they are and what they are good for. Consumers are more interested in learning about things like smart phones and tablets to which they are still in discovery mode with.
Continue reading Will UltraBooks Make PCs Interesting Again?