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Saturday, June 18, 2011

History Shows That Google’s Android Tablets Can’t Be Dismissed Just Yet

What’s to be done about the lack of interest in Android tablets? It’s a massive problem for Google (NSDQ: GOOG) and its Android partners, but a look back at the history of Android suggests that Google’s launch-early-iterate-often strategy makes for a significant amount of pain at the outset only to gather momentum later.

We’ve addressed this topic before, but influential iOS developer Marco Arment, creator of Instapaper and an early force at Tumblr, raised it once again this week: why do people just assume that Google can turn Android into something suitable for tablets? By any measure, sales of Android tablets have been disappointing, and the release of the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 this week doesn’t seem to have really changed anyone’s mind about the current state of the platform.

Even Research in Motion (NSDQ: RIMM), bedeviled by myriad problems of its own, shipped twice as many Playbooks in the first quarter it was on sale as Motorola shipped Xooms during its debut quarter. Granted, we have no idea how many of those shipments from either company are gathering dust at a Best Buy distribution center somewhere in Missouri, but it’s still a knock on Google and Android partners that retailers were more interested in stocking RIM’s brand-new and unproven operating system than Android, currently the world’s leading smartphone operating system.

Meanwhile, Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) continues to steamroll the competition, shipping 4.69 million iPads during its last quarter. Arment quite rightly notes that tablet software developers would be foolish to spend time writing applications for Android when they have such a huge target right in front of them, and wonders why those reviewing Android tablets assume that those developers will eventually come around to supporting Android.

It’s obviously not a given that Google and the rest of the industry eventually can come up with a true iPad competitor, but it’s also wrong to assume that valuable lessons aren’t being learned from this first generation of Android tablets. Remember the early Android handsets? The G1 was the first, and while it was cute, no one took it seriously as a response to the iPhone. The same could be said for the Android 1.5 handsets, like the MyTouch or Samsung Moment.

It wasn’t until Motorola (NYSE: MMI) came up with the Droid, Google improved the software to the 2.0 version, and Verizon got on board in a big way that Android really started to capture the attention of the public and developers, a year after the G1 made its debut. Things then snowballed from there, as HTC, Samsung, and Motorola started to produce better and better devices backed up by solid software.

It has only been six months since Motorola showed off the Xoom at CES, and three months since Samsung showed off the Galaxy Tab 10.1 at CTIA. At the same point in the evolution of Android for handsets, only the G1 was available.

In other words, just because Android tablets aren’t a success off the bat doesn’t mean they’ll never be a factor. There’s certainly no question that the current combination of Android tablet hardware and software can’t hold a candle to the iPad. Arment notes that developers choose to work on platforms for two of three reasons: they like the technology personally, they notice a groundswell of support for the technology among the public, and they can make money. The iPad fulfilled all three, he wrote, while Android tablets have yet to cross off anything from that list.

Later this year, however,Google intends to release an updated version of Android that will unite the tablet and smartphone versions of the operating system and hopefully right many of the wrongs of the Android tablet experience, such as the bugs and the cranky user interface. Timed against the holiday season with solid promotional efforts from partners (and perhaps the long-rumored Amazon (NSDQ: AMZN) Android tablet), there is absolutely still an opportunity for Android—a well-known brand name—to make its mark.

Google, unlike Apple, tends to release products or services as soon as it thinks possible while making tweaks along the way after it amasses enough data in the wild to inform its decisions. Apple, on the other hand, waits until it is truly satisfied with a product before even acknowledging it exists.

They are different ways of doing business, and while one can spend hours arguing over which approach is best, it’s clear that when it comes to smartphones both have had their advantages. There’s no reason why tablets, a similar mobile computing platform in a different package, won’t evolve along the same lines.


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