A stronger ecosystem, not a Nexus tablet, is what Google needs

Rumors of a Google Nexus tablet are making the rounds, but even if true, such a device alone won’t solve the primary problem Android tablet owners face. Speaking to sources at last week’s Mobile World Congress, the Android and Me blog reports that Google is partnering with Asus to build a 7-inch slate, possibly with a quad-core processor, that will sell for $199. Like all prior Nexus devices, the tablet would use a stock Android interface.

Why the rumor makes sense

The rumor is certainly believable when you consider the the 7-inch tablet Asus previewed at the Consumer Electronics Show in January. At Nvidia’s (s nvda) press event, an Asus executive walked on stage to discuss how the company could compete with low-cost tablets from Amazon(s amzn) and Barnes & Noble(s bks). The Tegra 3 device, dubbed the Asus MeMo, was indeed a quad-core, 7-inch Android slate that will have an expected price of $249.

Google has reportedly approached Asus to collaborate on the device, which could be a flagship tablet for Google’s annual developer conference, called Google I/O. Last year, Google partnered with Samsung to create a special version of the Galaxy Tab 10.1 and 5,000 units were handed out to developers. While not called a Nexus device, the tablet used a stock Android Honeycomb interface, presumably to give developers a pure tablet experience with which to build their apps. I don’t think the device succeeded, however.

What happened to last year’s Google tablet?

For starters, any developers that have the Google Edition Galaxy Tab 10.1 essentially have an orphaned device. The tablet came with Android 3.1 and received an update to 3.2 a few months later. Since then, however, no software updates have arrived from either Samsung or Google. And I’ve seen no reports of any planned updates. That doesn’t send an inspiring message to developers at an event that should generate excitement. How are devs supposed to create apps for Android 4.0 when the tablet they were given runs older software?

Secondly, there really hasn’t been a huge uptick in the number of Android tablet apps since then. Instead, Google added a function that zooms or upscales Android smartphone applications on a tablet. The entire point of the Google I/O device was to generate momentum for Android apps, but top-tier tablet apps and content available on Apple’s iPad(s aapl) are still missing from the Android ecosystem. Think Flipboard, for example, or HBO Go, which is available on Android smartphones, but not tablets.

Simply put: when it comes to tablets, very few developers are thinking Android first and iOS second. And why should this change when the iPad is still outselling all Android tablets combined? Programmers are following the money, which means targeting their wares on the best-selling tablet.

Why the Nook Tablet and Kindle Fire worsen the problem

With the Nook Tablet and Kindle Fire taking 21 percent of the overall tablet market in the last quarter of 2011, you’d think these would help the situation, but they don’t. Both slates are built on Google’s smartphone platform, Gingerbread. That means they run phone applications, not software built for Android tablets. Neither of these have access to Google’s Android Market out of the box, either; developers have to work directly with Amazon or Barnes & Noble to get their apps in the virtual stores.

These two alternative slates built on Android underscore the challenge Google faces in the tablet market. People are looking not just for solid hardware, but also a wide range of content and applications they can use in a friendly user interface. Both the Nook and Fire meet those requirements and do so at a compelling price. My point is: Creating a quad-core tablet at a competing price alone isn’t going to address the issue.

There are three parts to mobile devices: hardware, software and ecosystem

Google needs to work hard — perhaps more than ever before — at its upcoming I/O event to convince developers that there’s a reason to create tablet applications for Android. Perhaps selling a $199 pure Google device can help with that, because up to now, the Android tablet freight train isn’t chugging down the tracks at the speed of the iPad Express.

Perhaps if Google were to create a pure Google experience slate or a Nexus tablet at a compelling price, sales will rise, but that’s only going to carry Android tablets so far. To truly compete, Google needs to convince devs to build iOS and Android apps at the same time; or even better: think Android first when it comes to tablets.