Verizon/Google Tablet: What It Means

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The word that Verizon and Google are collaborating on a tablet to compete with the iPad came out of left field. The mobile slate is the hot segment currently, as witnessed by the high sales volume Apple has already achieved in just a few weeks of iPad sales. Verizon may seem an unlikely partner for a Google tablet, but it’s not out of character for Big Red to do so. The carrier was an early partner in the netbook game, and was selling HP partnered netbooks in the early days of that product’s life. No, the only real surprise here is that normally tight-lipped Verizon felt threatened by the iPad (and perhaps a future HP/ Palm webOS slate) to speak up this early in the process.

It’s also not surprising because Android tablets are already heating up, even with no actual products in the market channel yet. We have seen at least a dozen prototypes shown at trade shows this year, indicating that many OEMs are hard at work getting an Android slate ready for the market. Android is the perfect platform for a slate, with a solid base for a mobile device baked in, along with a UI designed for touch operation. It is built to run smartphones, and there are already a number of Android phones with hardware that can handle the Verizon network.

What is surprising about this collaboration is the potential business model for such a tablet venture. Neither Google nor Verizon makes hardware, so a partner must be employed to produce the tablet. In the Android smartphone game, typically a company designs the handset, and then makes a deal with a carrier to bring it to market. The final design is then tailored around that carrier’s wants and needs.

The only exception to this process has been Google’s Nexus One phone. The company worked directly with HTC — the phone manufacturer — to finalize the design to meet Google’s desires. The Nexus One is sold directly by Google, and the company’s intent was to have the phone on every major carrier in the U.S. The recent news that neither Verizon nor Sprint will offer the Nexus One was probably a blow to Google, but the Nexus One business model was still a valid one to try and break the hold the carrier has on the smartphone business.

This tablet deal with Verizon almost sounds like this is Google’s Nexus One for the slate segment. Google must want to make sure that this tablet is seen as the genuine Google article, otherwise there would be no need to insert itself in the design process. Verizon could work with any one of a number of OEMs already working on an Android tablet. Google risks the ire of its Android partners, much as they did with the Nexus One. It’s hard to work with companies and compete with them at the same time. Verizon has no exposure with this collaboration, but Google does.

Both companies have a reputation to protect, and should make sure this tablet has no compromises in the design. Competing with Apple’s iPad will not be easy, and it is important to bring a good product to market. The tablet should be thinner and lighter than the iPad if possible. The iPad’s 1.5 pounds has been one of the few criticisms levied against it, and the Google/ Verizon tablet can take advantage of that. This can’t be done by sacrificing battery life, as the 10 – 12 hours the iPad runs is one of its greatest strengths. No one said this Android tablet was going to be easy to produce.

The new tablet should have a user interface fully tweaked to take advantage of the screen. Android runs well on small screens, but just as Apple did with the iPad this interface must be modified where appropriate to handle the bigger screen. Take a long look at how Apple handles the bigger screen, and learn from that. The standard Android UI is not going to fly on a bigger display. Take that cute window shade interface feature in Android. It works on a 3-inch screen, but likely won’t work well on a 9-inch screen. Consumers will overlook clunky UI design on a little screen, but it becomes glaringly annoying on a big tablet display.

If Google is able to include tight integration with Google Apps, this tablet could be a killer product. There is already good integration with Gmail and other Google cloud services — bring Google Apps into the mix too. I’m referring to full editing of Google Docs, of course, along with total integration into the entire Google cloud.

Where Verizon and Google could seriously compete with the iPad is through subsidized pricing. A good Android tablet that could be obtained for $199 or less through a Verizon subsidy would be a killer product. This will only work if Verizon is not insistent on tying the subsidy to its services that require an additional monthly stipend, however. A cheap monthly unlimited data plan is essential to compete with the Apple/ AT&T product.

Verizon could do some clever things if it is serious about a Big Red tablet. If existing Verizon customers could cheaply tether this tablet to their phone and avoid a separate tablet data plan, this could be a big selling point. Imagine the Droid/ tablet ads that could point to this option.

This is my take on the Verizon/ Google tablet situation, and what I’d like to see happen. I do believe that both companies have the resources and technical ability to produce a very nice tablet. It would be nice to know who the hardware partner might be to actually produce the product.

Related research on GigaOM Pro (sub req’d):

With the iPad, Apple Takes Google to the Mat

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