Why Android Tablets Crashed And Burned
Today, when most people hear the word ‘tablet,’ they immediately think ‘iPad.’ In fact, Apple has held such a dominate position for so long that it’s easy to forget what the tablet market looked like before the iPad’s release. But that isn’t the case when it comes to smartphones. Although the iPhone has been very successful, Google was able to overtake Apple in smartphone marketshare back in 2010, and today Android dominates the global market. So why did Google fail to replicate their smartphone success with tablets? Well, that’s exactly what we’re going to find out.
Before we get into the reasons why Android tablets failed to gain much traction among customers, we need to understand what the tablet market looked like before the iPad was around. Because tech companies had different ideas of what a tablet should be and how it should function. And it was these different approaches to tablets that determined which companies succeeded, and which struggled. So one of the biggest players in the tablet market beginning in 2003 was Microsoft with what they called the Microsoft Tablet PC. It ran a slightly modified version of the Windows operating system, which allowed for input from a stylus rather than a keyboard and mouse. These tablet PCs were clunky, at about an inch thick, heavy, at about 3 to 4 pounds, and suffered from poor battery life, delivering about 4 to 5 hours of use. And to make matters even worse, these Microsoft Tablet PCs had an average price tag of about $2,000. Which made them significantly more expensive than their notebook computer equivalent.
So as you may’ve guessed, these tablets never had much commercial success. But this didn’t stop Apple users from wanting their own version of these tablet computers. In fact, some third party companies like Axiotron took matters into their own hands and created Macintosh tablet computers themselves. But these devices took the same approach as Microsoft to tablet PCs, by running a desktop-computer OS designed for a mouse, and this created some innate challenges. In order to run Windows or macOS on a tablet, you’d need the precision of a cursor. Which is why older tablets required a stylus rather than a finger. Also, the tablet needed all the hardware of a desktop computer. A desktop-grade processor, GPU, and cooling system. All of which come at a cost to battery life.
So as Apple began developing on their own version of the tablet, it became clear they needed to take a different approach. Instead of using Mac OS, they’d give their tablet iOS, a mobile operating system already used on the iPhone. And this was a good decision for a few reasons. iOS was power efficient which would allow for all-day battery life, it featured multitouch which eliminated the need for a stylus, and it could run on Apple’s low-power A4 system-on-a-chip, which allowed for a compact, thin, and light design. Not to mention how much cheaper this tablet would be to produce than a traditional desktop computer. That’s part of the reason why tech analysts were shocked when Apple announced the iPad’s starting price of $500, about half of what most people were predicting.
It wasn’t long before the iPad proved to be a huge hit, which prompted other tech companies to create similar devices that ran Google’s Android OS. The following year in 2011 the market was flooded with Android tablets. Just take a look at this article written by Sahas Katta at Skatter Tech which said, “Tablets absolutely stole the show at CES 2011. Just about every company had one. While the idea of a tablet may sound exciting, the majority of these were unfortunately poorly put together Android tablets… It felt as though some companies had merely glued a screen, a battery back, a processor, and some memory together and loaded Android onto it thinking it would sell. Aside from a few brand-name tablets, the majority on the show floor were still running Android 2.0, 2.1, or 2.2. While those versions of Android aren’t necessarily bad, the OS was built for a phone”
So right from the beginning, the majority of Android tablets were delivering poor functionality and performance. It was clear that manufacturers were rushing products to market to try and steal as much of the iPads thunder as possible. But these manufacturers didn’t understand what made the iPad so desirable in the first place. If you remember back to the iPads introduction, Steve Jobs made it very clear that while the iPad had fantastic hardware, it was the software that would define the user experience. While apps made for the iPhone could be scaled up and run on the iPad, Scott Forstall told developers that they should modify their apps and rewrite the interface in order to take advantage of the iPads larger display. Similar to what Apple did with their Photos, Music, Calendar, and YouTube apps. So in order to encourage developers to rewrite their applications, Apple created an iPad Software Development Kit that was released the same day as the iPad’s introduction. It was a very strategic move by Apple that gave developers over two months to prepare iPad-optimized versions of their apps. That way, when the very first iPad was sold, there would already be a marketplace of high-quality iPad apps available for download.
And that brings me to one of the biggest reasons why Android tablets failed. They started off running a smartphone operating system with apps that weren’t optimized for a tablet’s larger display. In fact, many of these early Android tablets didn’t even have access to Google Marketplace to download third party apps. Google was working on an operating system called Honeycomb which was optimized for tablets, but manufacturers wanted to bring their devices to market as soon as possible, and didn’t want to wait on Google to finish their work on the Honeycomb OS. This resulted in what I mentioned earlier, hundreds of cheap Android tablets running a smartphone operating system that resulted in a poor user experience. This created nothing but confusion and frustration for customers, and severely damaged the reputation of Android tablets from the start.
It’s a story that we’ve heard before with MP3 players and the iPod. There were hundreds of MP3 players on the market trying to compete with the iPod, but none of them were able to gain any traction. Mainly because of their poor build quality, software, and user interface. Despite being a fraction of the cost, most customers shopping for a music player ignored these MP3 players and instead opted for the iPod. And there were a few reasons for this that may sound familiar. Everyone knew what the iPod was. And most people who didn’t own one probably had friends or family members who did. They likely used the device for themselves before purchasing and was satisfied with the experience. Perhaps they’d like to save money by buying a cheaper MP3 player, but they understood that no other device would deliver the same experience as the iPod. And many people learned this for themselves by purchasing a generic MP3 player, becoming frustrated by its complexity or poor functionality, and leaving it in the junk drawer never to be used again. Which is very similar to what happened with Android tablets.
But this is only one piece of the puzzle. Because a recurring challenge with Android is device fragmentation. It’s a problem when it comes to their smartphones, but it’s an even bigger problem with their tablets. Because all the iPad’s advantages could only be achieved with Apple’s end-to-end control over hardware, software, and the app store. When it came to Android things were much less organized. How can a developer optimize an app for hundreds of different devices with display sizes that range from seven to thirteen inches? And how can apps run efficiently when there are dozens of different processors and chipsets they need to be compatible with?
To put it plainly, it’s a nightmare to develop applications for Android tablets. And considering the small install base, it simply isn’t worth many developers time and effort to rewrite their smartphone apps for tablets. And it causes what I call the “developer deterrent” problem. You see, Android tablets have never sold well historically, so there isn’t a very large user base. This means developers aren’t motivated to create custom designed apps for those devices. Instead, existing smartphone apps are simply stretched to fill the tablet’s larger display, rather than being truly optimized to take advantage of the extra screen real estate. This issue has been slowly improving, but it’s part of the reason why the app ecosystem on Android tablets has always been underwhelming, and this discourages people from buying them. So you can see the vicious cycle that forms: People aren’t buying Android tablets since their apps aren’t optimized, and developers aren’t optimizing apps for Android tablets because of the small user base. And when you consider the fact that Apple users spend twice as much money on apps than Android users, it’s easy to understand why developers invest more time and effort creating high quality apps for iPads.
Google eventually released their Honeycomb 3.0 operating system which was designed for devices with larger displays, but it was extremely buggy and difficult to navigate unlike the straightforward interface of the iPad. It was clear that Google was trying to deliver a tablet OS as quickly as possible to compete with Apple, but in the process missed the mark completely. Focusing on creating a more traditional desktop computer interface rather than investing resources in the features that mattered most to users, like a large ecosystem with apps optimized for the devices they owned. And ever since that Honeycomb release, Google has proved that they don’t understand what it takes to create a successful Android tablet. In 2012 they released the Nexus 7, which was what they thought buyers wanted: A cheap mini tablet that included Google Wallet, Near Field Communication, and their voice assistant Google Now. But the device was poorly built and plagued with bugs that rendered it useless for most users after just one year.
In 2014, Google flipped their strategy on its head and released the Nexus 9. A more premium tablet similar to the iPad mini whose selling point was the NVIDIA “Denver” Tegra K1 chip. It was supposed to be one of the only chipsets to give the iPad a run for its money, but it ended up falling behind the iPad Air 2’s A8X. Plus, Google’s tablets were still suffering from unoptimized apps that didn’t deliver the same full-featured experience as the iPad. The Nexus 9 was discontinued about 18 months later as Google shifted their strategy yet again. They introduced the Pixel C near the end of 2015 which looked to challenge Apple’s iPad Air 2. But despite adopting some of the same features and design cues as the iPad Air, the Pixel C was plagued by Android’s poor support for tablet hardware and a tiny app ecosystem that paled in comparison to the iPad’s App Store. In June of 2019 Google stopped development and production of all their tablets and confirmed they’d no longer be making those devices. Instead, Google would be investing their resources in notebook computers.
So while Android has experienced tremendous success on smartphones, it hasn’t been able to overcome the fragmentation, poor app ecosystem, and underwhelming performance that has plagued the platform since the very first Android tablets were released in 2011.