Already skirting the edge of irrelevance, Android tablets are at risk of being completely overwhelmed by Apple’s new iPad.
The most successful “pure” Android tablet line, Samsung’s extensive Galaxy Tab series, holds a pitiful worldwide tablet market share of about 6 percent — and this is across four different Galaxy form factors. Amazon and Barnes & Noble are doing comparatively better with their tablets, but these devices aren’t branded as Android products. Instead, Google’s operating system simply runs in the background, providing OS support for Amazon and B&N wrappers.
To date, tablet manufacturers that openly celebrate the Android name — think Samsung, Sony and Asus — have touted hardware superiority. In other words, if you want 4G data speeds, cutting-edge CPUs, and superior displays, you’ll have to join Team Android.
Or so the story has been told.
But now with the arrival of the new iPad, replete with fully modernized specs that neutralize the hardware advantages of the biggest, snazziest Android tablets, it’s all the more apparent that Google’s tablet strategy is more vulnerable than ever before.
One analyst even issued an apocalyptic proclamation: “Android has no hope as a ‘branded’ tablet OS in the U.S.,” Forrester’s Sarah Rotman Epps told Wired.
So how can Google and friends make a compelling case for customers to choose Android tablets over the iPad? Here are three avenues that Google might consider to keep Android tablets — or at least some of them — alive and kicking.
Dominate the Low End
At this point, it’s glaringly obvious that Apple has the high end of the tablet market cornered.
At 0 for the lowest-priced new iPad and up to 0 for the top of the line model, it takes more than chump change to pick one up.
And yet early sales estimates show that Apple’s new iPad is already a huge success. The Verge reportedApple’s Fifth Avenue flagship store sold 13,000 iPads in the first 12 hours of the tablet’s release. Apple itself has stated that pre-order demand before the tablet’s debut was “off the charts,” with more than 3 million new iPads sold in the first weekend of the device’s release.
Needless to say, people are willing to shell out major green for Apple’s new slate.
Android tablet makers are pushing similar high-end models, but alas, buyers aren’t flocking to the devices. Google stumbled right out of the gate with the Motorola Xoom, which was priced at 0 for the cheapest version — a hundred bucks more expensive than the cheapest iPad. The Xoom, as well as countless other high-end Android tablets, have not sold well.
But Amazon seems to have found the right approach: If you can’t beat ‘em, undercut ‘em.
Amazon’s Kindle Fire went on sale last November, quickly securing a spot as one of Amazon’s fastest-selling products ever. The draw to consumers hasn’t been raw specs and features, as the Fire is a mere 7-inch device that doesn’t include any cameras, and offers limited on-board storage. Nor have apps been a Kindle Fire draw, as Amazon’s Appstore offers a mere fraction of apps compared to Apple’s veritably endless buffet.
No, for Amazon, it’s all about the price. The Fire launched with a loss-leading 0 price tag — significantly lower than the 0 to 0 price tags of branded, 10-inch Android tablets. And the Fire has destroyed its Android brethren in terms of market share, capturing 16 percent of the still nascent tablet landscape, and selling more units in a matter of weeks than other manufacturers managed to sell over the course of a year.
Google may be watching carefully, and reevaluating its options in the wake of Amazon’s success. Last week, rumors circulated around a 0 Android tablet that would be manufactured by Asus and serve as Google’s next Nexus device.
Nexus devices, of course, are close collaborative efforts between Google and a partner manufacturer. In the past, they’ve always emerged as flagship smartphones that show off all the bells and whistles of a new version of Android. If Google can nail its next Android software iteration on a Nexus tablet (as opposed to a smartphone), it could convince consumers that Google takes tablets seriously.
“To cultivate more mass appeal for Android as an OS, there should probably be more synergy between the OS (or the content) and the hardware,” NPD analyst Benjamin Arnold told Wired in an email. “The Nook and Fire were successful for a number of reasons, a major one being the content was tightly aligned with the device.”
Score Killer App Exclusives
There’s nothing worse than feeling left out. Sadly, until Google can do a better job of convincing app developers to code for Android first, it will be hard for Android tablet users to feel they’re using the latest, greatest, coolest software.
Take Instagram. It’s one of the hottest iOS-exclusive apps to hit the platform to date, currently boasting an installed base of close to 30 million users globally. It’s a breakaway success, with little sign of slowing. Yes, Instagram is coming to Android soon, CEO Kevin Systrom says. But after how long and how many Android users’ pleas?
“Google could really lend a helping hand to developers and work with them to get the most out of what the platform has to offer,” Andreas Schobel, CTO of cross-platform note-taking mobile app Catch, toldWired. “It’s all about the apps.”
Industry players have tried to lend Google a helping hand in propping up the Android app effort. NVidia boasts the Tegra Zone app inside the Google Play store; it essentially acts as a portal to Nvidia’s own cache of games optimized for the Tegra 2 and Tegra 3 CPUs. And wireless carriers have also tried luring developers with their own branded app markets, such as Verizon’s V-Cast App store and AT&T’s App Center.
But Google doesn’t need a plethora of fragmented Android app stores to excite customers. These sundry outlets can easily create confusion, doing more harm than good.
What Google needs to do is borrow a trick from Apple, and make Google Play — it’s just-launched effort to consolidate apps, music, video and books — into a piece of lucrative real estate. Being featured on Apple’s App Store promises a hefty boost in downloads, so if Google can direct millions of eyeballs to itsGoogle Play storefront — like Apple has done with iTunes — developers will fight to get on Google’s radar.
For even more power, Google needs the one-two punch of finding the next killer app, and featuring it on the latest Android tablet. “You get one of these releases to coincide with a big hardware release, and that would definitely get consumers thinking,” says NPD’s Arnold. “Maybe a special release of an Angry Birds.”
How does Google find the next Angry Birds? It needs to put a full-court press on the developer community, engaging devs and promoting best practices. Google has already taken some initiative here — partnering with MIT to create better tools for developers, launching the Android Design web site to more explicitly enunciate best coding practices, and even starting a series of Android university classesaround the world to enroll more programmers into Google’s third-party developer ranks. But there’s always more to be done.