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5 Things Google Must Do to Make Its Tablet Competitive

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Google is said to be planning a rival device to Apple’s iPad (s aapl) 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

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33 Responses to “5 Things Google Must Do to Make Its Tablet Competitive”

  1. This article seems to have been written by someone who would like to see Google fail.
    “Smaller screen size than iPad because people already say it’s too heavy…” How weak have we become? If anyone can’t handle toting a pound and a half really needs to consider dropping the fork and heading to the gym.
    “Sync or swim…” The cloud environment is the one one the greatest draws of the Google platforms! No need duplicate the same file on 5 or 6 different device…just purcase, power up and log in.
    Just don’t do like Apple did; don’t enlarge an Android phone, take away the camera and phone applications, jack up the price, and call it quits.

  2. At least two things the iPad doesn’t do that a personal PAD device needs to do:

    1) Access the network storage devices on my local/home network. I have a Stora device on my network where all my music and photos are located for sharing amongst the many PCs in the house. iPad can’t access that device. Lame! Google’s device should.

    2) Include phone circuitry. Make it my Droid, blue-tooth enabled, of course.

    One device to rule them all and in the darkness bind them.

  3. U were just talking software, apple clearly dominates the software at the moment, I’m more concerned about the hardware. I do agree with u on the 7″ screen size. I’m lookong into a 7 to 9 in screen, 16×9 720p, AMOLED (I wish) , tegra 2 , gps and able to make phone calls. Yeah, I said it, calls using bluetooth. So, I’m up for probably Asus pad, or perhaps MS Courier if it actualy exist.

  4. dennisvjames

    here are a few simple ones: print wirelessly, don’t build yet another interface for us to learn, finger interfaces are great but don’t forget using a stylis to create notes (i don’t care about text conversion) so that would be palm rejection which is missing in the iPad…

  5. The market wants a worthy competitor to Apple. And as Google has shown with Android, the best way to compete with a leader is by being different. The Google Pad, by extending the open Android movement will be different than the iPad, and a success.

  6. You left another one off. You need to be able to write on it. It doesn’t have to convert handwriting to text, but it needs functionality like a tablet with OneNote. Without that it’s utility for business is sorely lacking.

    • Nameless

      Fully agreed. No Wacom, no sale, as I said about the iPad.

      The software may be a key part of the equation, but inking just won’t be that good without an active pen digitizer of some sort.

  7. Frankly I think the whole Apple vs Google thing is like Hip Hop stars “fighting” with each other to sell records.

    Apple is consumer.

    Google on the other hand knows exactly where it’s bread is buttered: business.

    1) Business wants an iPad or larger tablet you can work on.
    2) Business wants a controlled market so employees aren’t sitting around playing solitaire in the can.
    3) Google Apps for Domains users are happy syncing to the cloud but want the ability to backup the tablet’s contents locally for rapid restore when employees drop the tablet in the toilet (while inevitably playing solitaire in the can.)
    4) Business definitely wants the boost and the reduction in overhead costs for things like desktops, laptops, printers, support desks and reams and reams of paper.
    5) Business is happy with what Google is already doing with Google Apps for Domains. Keep it up boys!

  8. When identifying what a competitor needs to do to match or beat Apple at the tablet game, the conversation typically focuses on hardware. I agree with your comments; however, I believe you missed the most important element that is making the iPad a hit — the user interface/user experience.
    There are tablets in existence now that beat the iPad in the hardware spec category, but no one is even close to having a touch OS that implements easy and fun to use multi-touch through out the entire device — especially the apps.
    Apple has set a high bar where multi-touch is concerned. Once you show the world that it is possible, no one wants to go back to shoe-horning a keyboard/mouse centric OS into a tablet.

  9. Ragazzo

    This has EVERYTHING to do with developer support and little to do with anything else (IMO).
    When it comes to battling Apple 90% of the battle is going to be a popularity contest. The iPhone was the FIRST device (again IMO) that Apple truly mastered before others in the same space….but its updates and new iterations, including the iPad, have been sub-par in terms of tech by a pretty large margin.

    The hardware specs on the devices matter little when it comes to competing for the mass market with Apple as well. The iPad on a hardware level is an iPhone almost to the T with some very minor modifications (aside from the big screen). Google already beats Apples mobile hardware in almost every single category (I should actually say the hardware manufacturers that partner with Google do).

    Apple is doing well in the mobile space because of the amazing support they have from 3rd party publishers. All Google has to do in order to compete is dump skyscraper sized amounts of money into its 3rd party developer programs and build its marketplace as quickly as possible…quality wouldn’t hurt either. This obviously can’t happen overnight as so many publishers are tied to Apple now.

    So the list is pretty short if you ask me.
    1. Make the Android Market easier to manage especially if you are going to keep it mobile without a desktop client. My recommendation would be a new cloud system similar to everything else for Apps. A new tab next to my Gmail that I can manage/sync/lookup all my current apps and search for new apps to DL.
    2. Dump that cash-o-la into your 3rd party devs. Google needs to be closer to 75% of the size of Apples market by end of 2010…..and I think they could if they really pushed hard TODAY

    I think I touched the points I wanted to 

  10. After re-reading the source material I think that if anyone is going to compete with the iPad they have to offer something that the iPad doesn’t offer.

    Having to synch with a PC seems like a step backward for such a device. I’ve wondered why no one has looked into something like TransferJet technology so they can easily get content on the go where there is no wifi or 3G (such as the subway) and the delivery system could also be similar to how it exists today. Perhaps they could even devise a way to share books and documents that way with a one-way transfer of commercial content (transfer and delete) to mimic the physical media.

    • firestarter

      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

    • 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.

  11. PXLated

    “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.

  12. @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,


  13. 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)

  14. 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.

  15. PXLated

    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?

    • 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.

  16. 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.

    • 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.

  17. 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

    • 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.

    • Nameless

      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.)