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

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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.

13 Responses to “A stronger ecosystem, not a Nexus tablet, is what Google needs”

  1. You know, I’ve sat researching phones and tablets all day. What I’m tired of is this Vendor control. I just want a phone that I can do what I want with. I want a phone or a tablet that has an interchangeable radio. Want to use it on T-Mobile… fine, change out the radio like a SIM card or USB dongle. Use it on ATT… fine change out the radio. etc. Remove this proprietary vendor lock in, remove the carrier mods to the OS. Just let me have the data transmission and let me use the computer. My ISP at home doesn’t control my OS on computers I use, why should vendors.

    I just want a nice phone and tablet that is powerful and doesn’t compromise on all these features from the carrier. Give me the phone with the nice screen, Add on the memory, add in the MP camera, wireless charging, nice battery life. Look, it’s all do-able. Instead, it’s like they release one feature at a time instead of just releasing the ultimate phone tablet just so we buy them. Just give me what I want, from a hardware angle… and give me what I want from a carrier angle (which is just data). Maybe a wireless public band of networked devices that just routed traffic on its own would be way better than this carrier junk.

    I digress, but I am so frustrated with not having the device I want like my first HTC dream or current Nexus One, and the phone carriers all suck in their money-sucking ways, I’ll just stick with what I have right now and not give into their crap ways.

    That’s why the tablet and phone market isn’t going places fast for companies like Google/etc. No one is giving the consumer what they want. Everyone’s trying to control what they give us. If one company can figure out how to give us all of it, I know they’d do well if they execute it right.

    • I’m with you on that. My best experiences have been been with the Nexus One and now the Galaxy Nexus for the very reasons you mention: total control. Unfortunately, carrier control is very entrenched in the U.S. market; a look at what Google tried to do with the Nexus One shows how difficult it is to make the kinds of changes you and I might want to see.

  2. John S. Wilson

    I agree. The Android ecosystem isn’t yet strong enough. Google rebranding the market to Google Play and putting everything under one banner is smart but isn’t yet enough.

    What’s the purpose of Google working with Asus when they own Motorola? Yes, I know Google has claimed Motorola will get no special advantages, but what’s the point of the purchase if they won’t get exclusive access in any respect? Motorola on its own is not profitable. Just allowing management to continue on will be a disaster.

    • Android has had 5 years to make its mark and give Apple a run for its money. The fact that its hasn’t even been able to replicate the smoothness the original iPhone inspite of the huge resources at its disposal suggests a Nokia 2 in the works.

      Google needs to figure this out asap, give Andy Rubin a break, fresh ideas to not just compete but leapfrog.

      • David McCormack

        The iPhone wasn’t even on sale 5 years ago and Android didn’t come out until 3.5 years ago. So I’m not sure what you mean by the “Android has had 5 years to make its mark” comment. In any case, Android leapfrogged iOS long ago in terms of adoption and is now firmly established as the World’s dominant smartphone platform. 58% is the most recent global figure I’ve seen and that was more than 3 times the iOS figure. Even considering just the US market, Android is already nudging 50% with iOS running at just 30%. Moreover, the rate of Android adoption is accelerating. By some conservative estimates, device activations are currently running at 400,000 per day, and some analysts are even bandying about numbers twice that big. Nokia 2 indeed.

  3. Lisa Earls Spoor

    I own two Samsung 10.1 Tabs. They suck. A broader ecosystem would be nice, but what I would really like is a hardware / software platform that worked fluidly. These things are buggy and unresponsive way too often.

  4. ronald

    Google’s biggest enemy: Google
    Google is a kingdom of fiefdoms each with their own P&L. From a developer perspective intents are fine, how are they integrated into market? If it takes 5 min to develop an intent call 3 of which it takes to find the required doc, what’s wrong with that? Just read the G+ comments from internal Google and external.

    From a user standpoint how long did it take to see a half way working Google Docs implementation on Android? Email, gmail still sucks, no integration.

    As for development, the most advanced CASE (Computer Aided Software Engineering ) system I have seen were always classified. If anybody thinks that SIRI is just there to answer “What is the essence of live” good luck adjusting your Assistant in the future.

    Also as an exercise watch the upcoming iPad[3] announcement than go back and watch Nexus Galaxy, or NFL against high school.

  5. Android needs a lot of things in terms of product vision, roadmap and leadership, and Google isn’t giving that now. Developing, maintaining, marketing and supporting (don’t forget support!) an entire OS needs a different kind of personality and I am afraid Google may not have it. Is it a product or service that four brilliant programmers can hack together by themselves in a room? Yes, Google is great at doing that, even if it is an awesome product like Chrome or Google Maps. But is it a mobile OS that needs an entire market place to be singing in sync, that needs the skills of a god of cat-herders? Sorry, Google isn’t it.

    Apologies to Andy Rubin, but he is a tinkerer techie who is great at managing Android development in the lab. Android needs an entirely different person to work the market (includes hardware manufacturers, telcos, customers, developers, etc.).

  6. What Google needs is to spin off a consumer products division. In an engineer driven culture, you are not going to create great products. I’m an engineer, so I’m not bashing engineers. I’m also a big Google fan. But I recognized for some time that Google simply doesn’t have the culture needed to create great consumer products.

    You have to pick your core, focus on that, and do it incredibly well. Google has already chosen engineering as it’s core so the type of design and user-centric product experience that Apple provides has been, and will continue to be, impossible for Google to replicate within the current structure. If they want to be real players in this space, they need an independent team that is driven by awesome product people, not engineers.

  7. Android really needs strict quality control on its OS, including cleaning up UI messes, minimizing/enforcing app access privileges; easy and free hosting for the first year for any app back end; instant and forced OS upgrades to keep everyone on the same version, no matter what this takes.

  8. rick gregory

    Even more, Kevin, they need to make sure there’s a compelling answer to the question “Why should I buy this instead of an iPad?” and right now there’s not one. Smaller tablets can come with a price advantage but that’s really only happening in the 7″ form factor. The Nook and Fire have name recognition now, too and the ecosystem advantage you note.

    The moment people decide they want something in the 9-10″ range, they are trapped in a maze of twisty devices all alike. Trying to tack on contracts via carriers doesn’t help nor does releasing a stream of devices every few weeks.

    The other vendors are making the mistake of seeing tablets as computers and trying to sell them on specs but people at heart don’t really care about quad-core vs dual-core or what Tegra is has. Oh the spec geeks do, but most people? Don’t. All they care about is if their tablet does cool stuff well. Some of the recent Samsung commercials seem to recognize that this is a mistake as they appeal to what you can do with their products (I’m thinking of a Note commercial from last night)

    *To me emotional reasons don’t count as compelling so all the “I hate Apple…” stuff need not apply.