The tablet war is far from over, but until Android sorts out the problem of cheap tablets running old versions of the operating system, Honeycomb can never be seen as a competitor to iOS on the iPad...
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The tablet market is a battleground where many companies hope to do well, but which at present there is one name that is dominating, and that is Apple with the iPad and iPad 2. Since the original launched in 2010 Apple has forged a largely new market for portable Internet and multi-media devices, effectively scaled-up iPhones that can facilitate an increase in office productivity but are great for watching videos, casual gaming, reading e-books, and generally consuming media.
Following Apple into the tablet market was RIM with its BlackBerry Playbook and HP with its already-failed webOS HP TouchPad, and of course Android released Honeycomb, a version of the popular mobile phone OS designed for use on tablet computers.
Recently published figures indicate that there are over 1 million Android tablet devices in use, considerably less than the number of iPads. Yet Android is seen as the main competitor to Apple’s tablet, so why aren’t more devices selling?
The truth is this: they are selling. The problem is that the wrong devices are being sold. As a result, Android cannot win the tablet war because of the conflict of different devices and versions that make it up. A platform divided against it self, so to speak, cannot stand.
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The Market for Android Tablets
What do I mean by “the wrong devices are being sold"?
According to the figures, 1.2 million Android tablets are in circulation. Yet less than 1 per cent of these tablets are running Android 3.0/3.1 Honeycomb, the version of the mobile OS designed specifically for slates.
So what’s going on? The facts are actually quite interesting, but they do require you to unlearn some of what you might have been led to believe. We’ll begin with this: the tablet market existed before the iPad was released.
Many people will tell you that this is wrong, that the iPad was the first non-PC tablet computer. In fact there was already a market for web tablets, portable hand-held browsers running bespoke operating systems. Quite a few of these devices were manufactured by Archos, a company that has recently been doing pretty well off the back of the iPad.
The same applies to Android tablets which have certainly been helped by the iPad’s release in early 2010, an occasion that lead to a huge number of tablets – essentially scaled-up Android phones – being released and sold online and in bricks and mortar stores. A quick look at eBay will reveal a huge selection of Android tablets running version 1.5, an operating system that has been superseded seven times. Alongside them you will find Android tablets running later versions, but none of these are specifically designed for use on a tablet computer except Android 3.x Honeycomb.
One key giveaway is that these devices never come with the Android Market pre-installed, but instead feature a bespoke app store that features custom apps and perhaps a few popular items from the Market. The reason for this is simple – only the Honeycomb version of Android is licensed to give access to the Market.
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At War with Themselves
So, why are there so few Honeycomb devices in use? According to the figures we’re looking at less than 12,000 tablets using Android 3.x Honeycomb, a very small figure compared to the 135 million Android devices (admittedly the lion's share being phones that aren't supposed to run Honneycomb) in total that accessed the Market in the two-week period ending on July 5th 2011.
Meanwhile Apple has shifted around 9.3 million iPads.
The figures on offer for Android tablets aren’t comprehensive, so it is difficult to know exactly what is going on, but it seems as though Google’s less-than-expedient official entry into the tablet market has a lot to do with it. The open source nature of Android meant that any Korean or Chinese tech startup could throw together a slate (often with a resistive touch screen), stick Android 1.5 on it and flood the USA and Europe with these devices.
It would come as no surprise to find that for many users, the experience of an Android 1.5 (or 2.1, etc.) tablet was so poor that the buyers put the slate back in the box and in the back of a cupboard, never to be spoken of again, and then headed out to buy an Apple iPad. This is very bad PR, yet little seems to be being done to address it.
The truth is, low end Android tablets are killing Honeycomb devices such as the Motorola Xoom and without some action in the near future this is going to be a very long game for Google Android.
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(Lack Of) Android Certification is Killing Honeycomb
Don’t think that all of this is down to third-party device manufacturers, however.
There is very little in the way of certification for devices running Android. Just because Android is open source doesn’t mean that controls can’t be applied - Honeycomb-capable devices (such as those with the P1AN01 chipset) are currently shipping with Android 2.2 installed but without access to the Market, as this isn't licensed for use on large screen devices on any version other than Android 3.x Honeycomb.
So if Honeycomb is being fiercely protected by Google, why are they letting Android tablets as a whole suffer from the cheaper, low-spec devices?
Sadly the development of the Android tablet has been hampered by Google’s blinkered attitude to certification and licensing, and the platform is drifting into a state of disarray. Android was already explaining platform fragmentation when the earliest tablets were released, and with the operating system now split in two (one for mobiles, one for tablets) this problem isn’t going to get any better. Serious action needs to be taken now if the only viable alternative to the iPad and iOS is to have a chance of reaching its audience.
For instance, older versions of the Android Market interface could be prevented from accessing the database of apps. This would at least prevent devices running the Market unofficially from installing any new apps. Alternatively, Google could offer a "low spec tablet amnesty" for users to trade in their devices for a low-cost tablet equipped with a Tegra II processor and pre-installed with Android Honeycomb.
Whatever action they take, the most immediate strategy must be to get the low-spec devices off the marketplace as quickly as possible. Google has been seen to exercise its litigious muscles of late - protecting Honeycomb would seem to be a valid reason for some more legal action, this time against the low-spec device manufacturers and retailers, blocking any Android tablet that isn't running Honeycomb (or isn't capable of running it) from sale. At the very least Google come up with an Android+ for Tablets certification program and educate consumers with some marketing. This would also start to make up the shortfall of Android tablet marketing, not only to the dominant iPad or feisty Playbook, but even the defunct HP Touchpad will be getting more airtime than any Android until the already purchased TV ad runs are exhausted.
If Google had restricted the use of their mobile phone for anything beyond a particular screen size and developed Honeycomb a little sooner would the position of their excellent tablet operating system be far stronger than it is?