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Summary:

Rumors are swirling that Google is building a competing product to fight against Apple’s iPad. The “Google Pad” is expected to run on the touch-friendly Android operating system, but touch alone won’t win. Google needs to address these five issues before it can compete.

Google is said to be planning a rival device to Apple’s iPad that will be powered by Android. Assuming this is true, what does Google need to do in order to make its slate competitive with the iPad?

  • Size matters — A “Google Pad” should target the sweet spot of screen sizes, that of 5-8 inches. Any larger and some will complain that the device is too heavy — as is already happening with the iPad — while smaller devices simply don’t offer enough benefit over current smartphones, some of which have displays of 4 inches or larger. Google would have to subsequently adjust how Android and its apps run on larger displays — my own porting of Android to a 7-inch touchscreen computer offered a less-than-ideal experience because the user interface is optimized for small screens.
  • Fix the Market — Other companies already offer Android-powered tablets, but those devices are mysteriously hobbled by limitations that include not having access to the Android Market for software. Obviously, Google wouldn’t similarly constrain its own product, but it still needs to make finding and installing software from the marketplace easier than it is now. One small tweak that would yield huge benefits is an “update all” function. Users don’t want to have to update software one app at a time.
  • Sync or swim — Unlike its competitors, Google doesn’t offer software to synchronize data between Android devices and computers. One could correctly argue that the sync solution Google offers is the cloud — mail, contacts, calendars and other data is all available through an over-the-air web connection. But not all consumers are ready for a true wireless data sync. Google should either bundle solutions like DoubleTwist for media and application synchronization or perhaps the Missing Sync for personal data.
  • Boost productivity — While most people don’t buy tablets to replace the productivity offered by a traditional computer, if it’s making one, Google should leverage its Google Docs platform for it. Currently, Android supports document viewing, but not much in the way of editing aside from limited spreadsheet changes. A native Android application or enhanced Google Docs functionality in the browser for basic document editing would rival Apple’s iWork software for the iPad.
  • Court developers — Apple has already got the attention of third-party developers, so Google will have to offer an equally if not more compelling development environment in order to have blockbuster applications on hand at launch. Netflix is a fine example — Apple successfully convinced the company to build media-streaming software for the ARM-powered iPad, enabling consumers to watch video wherever a web connection could be found.

As someone who switched from an iPhone to a Nexus One earlier this year — yes, I bought an iPad, too — I find the Apple experience more refined than that of Google. But Android still has much to offer, namely the lack of an ecosystem lock-in, easy integration with Google services and a growing number of software titles. If the company addresses the five areas I’ve outlined above, a Google Pad could be a very worthy alternative to Apple’s iPad indeed.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d):

Can Anyone Compete With the iPad?

Thumbnail tablet rendering image courtesy of the Chromium Blog

This article also appeared on BusinessWeek.com

By Kevin C. Tofel
  1. I agree with all but one of your 5.

    The Sync or Swim – I honestly think we need to move away from this syncing to a desktop/laptop. We shouldn’t need one to use these new mobile devices. Android syncs everything except for media (ie. music, videos, etc). With Android 2.1, they now sync photos along with your settings, apps, contacts, etc. I moved from the Droid to a Nexus One and I did was pop in my microSD and typed in my Google Account and everything was the same as it was on the Droid (wallpaper and all). To me that is a lot easier for a user then having to connect to some desktop/laptop it is basically seamless

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    1. Agreed. Syncing in the iPhone/iPod sense is counter-progressive. The media IS an issue, but I think its an issue that will be addressed shortly… and not with the involvement of USB.

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    2. I agree completely. A huge reason I won’t buy an iPad is that it isn’t a stand-alone device.

      I got a huge chuckle out of Baratunde Thurston’s story on TWiT this week. Apple fanboys ran to the nearest wifi-enabled coffee shop for the unboxing only to find the device was useless without that first sync.

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    3. Syncing is a bit troublesome, but I don’t want to be forced into the cloud on someone else’s servers, either, much less have that data ONLY stored on those servers to the point where no connection makes me unable to access it. I can’t afford to shell out for a cellular data plan.

      However, I mostly think of sync in the Windows Mobile sense-it’s a standalone computer, and when connected, it reconciles its data with the other computer. Unlike the iPhone OS devices, you do NOT have to sync it with anything to use it-it’s just an option that the user can choose to use.

      Ultimately, there has to be some form of sync, if only because my most likely use for a tablet computer is to use OneNote on something more portable than my hefty Gateway E-295C, and I expect my notebooks to be reconciled between the two.

      (For things like multimedia and anything else file-based, I just do the usual copy/paste over Windows network file shares.)

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  2. Google pad? With which OS? Android? Chromium? Would it be one device or a reference design that many could follow? They could have made a Google phone and only sold by themselves and not let other phone manufacturers in. I think if they don’t try to make just one specific device but get all the specs, features, partnerships in place then they can do better. They will also have to compete with the inevitable MeeGo tablet that will be coming.

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    1. Stuart, the first sentence lays out the OS: “…will be powered by Android.” As far as specifics on reference or many designs, Google hasn’t made that information isn’t available. But they really don’t need to create reference designs — partners can build Android slates now, just as Archos does.

      Meego indeed could be interesting although it’s further behind in development, users and available applications.

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  3. So, what your saying/implying is Android is still years behind Apple’s nice, refined, “ensured” (safe/closed), extensive ecosystem and probably won’t catch up ever – will always be chasing Apple and never it’s equal? But you’re wishing otherwise?

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    1. I didn’t say nor imply that Android is years behind, although it seems as though you quantified that from your reading. I’m simply suggesting what Google needs to do in order to better compete. They’re doing quite well now with Android — in fact, Google got me drop an iPhone after 2.5 years and move to an Android phone as my only handset.

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  4. I think if Google does come out with its Tablet that it can compete with the iPad. But I still think that the iPad will continue to be the main stream of tablets, just like the iPod. Kevin those are good points for Google to have when they do release a tablet, along with GPS, WiFi, 3G, and at least 10 hour battery life.

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    1. HG, good points on the specs. I can’t see Google going x86 with such a device, so using an ARM processor with the right display and battery technology should offer the battery life you’re looking for.

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  5. Kevin,

    Good article! I think #6 should be around video emphasis – 1)Front facing camera before apple gets there for video conferences and would tie in great your #4 argument (think webex) 2)Some type of tie in with the future Sony/Google TV would help them in an arena where apple has failed (apple tv fail)

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  6. @Kevin @HG,

    I think your recommendations, plus those of HG are spot on. I’d add phone capabilities to help reduce the number of devices the user carries during a period of usage. Given that voice growth has flatlined, and all the carriers have gone to unlimited voice plans, this would make the Google Tablet quite compelling. This is a huge advantage ARM architecture offers, and it surprises me that this isn’t being addressed more by the tech blogosphere.

    My $.02,

    Best.

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  7. “Got me to drop an iPhone” – Ya, but you’re a geek/techie so that’s isn’t that meaningful. And if you look at the “whole” Apple ecosystem, Android “is” years behind. The trouble with Google is it’s all left brain so I don’t see ease of use ever catching up and even if the handset manufacturers have some right brain for the interface each will do something different to differentiate and hence fragmentation. Not saying they won’t sell a ton but it will only be because of carrier choice/lockin or commoditized pricing but it will always be chasing rather than leading.

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  8. I think just releasing it will make it competitive.

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  9. Chromium is dead in the water.

    Apple is forcing Google to copy Apple by adopting Android to a tablet.

    Google is fully in Apple copy mode.

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    1. Android was written as an OS for basically any device short of an actual production computer. I think Android is getting integrated in tvs and set top boxes as well at some point… And as far as Google copying apple, have you seen the “new features” of the iphone 4.0 updates? Uh, hmm, new to apple i guess hahaha

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    2. Apple did a great thing one time…long long ago. They copied the Xerox R&D departments ideas and called them their own. Now granted, if Apple had bothered to stay on top of these ideas and continued to develope them with new and exciting ingenuity, that would be a different story. If no one looked at someone else’s idea and said, “I like that, but I think I can do better,” then we would all still be flying around in a Wright Brothers bi-wing plane with only 2 seats or driving a crank start Model T Ford. The thing is that Apple has not issued anything revolutionary with the iPad…it is a larger iPod Touch with less capabilties and nothing more.
      However, I do find it ironic that Apple has become what they used to call Microsoft…”the machine”. Remember that Super Bowl commercial so many years ago that urged people to stop listening to the “market dictator” and think for yourself? Well, Apple would go broke if everyone did that now.

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  10. [...] 5 Things Google Must Do to Make Its Tablet Competitive [...]

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