Why Apple can’t be too worried about Android 3.0 Honeycomb tablets taking away iPad sales: Part 3
February 9th, 2011
The Honeycomb tablet
Daniel Eran Dilger
Listen to giddy Android enthusiasts and you might get the impression that the next tablet-centric version of Google’s Android platform, named 3.0 Honeycomb, is about to destroy iPad sales. They’re wrong, here’s why, part three.
Part 3: The Honeycomb tablet
In the course of just over a year, Android has moved from a scrappy upstart known only amongst nerds to being a broadly licensed platform that a sizable percentage of the tech savvy population has heard of. This is something, but really only puts Android into the same bucket as Linux, Windows Mobile, Flash Lite, Java, and Symbian. Oh, and PlaysForSure.
Realistically looking at the future prospects for Honeycomb tablets requires uttering some additional, unpleasant memes that those who are hot to trot for Honeycomb are not going to like. Android in general, and the tablet-centric Honeycomb release in particular, share far more in common with three Microsoft platforms than anything from Apple. Those platforms are Tablet PC, Windows CE, and PlaysForSure. Honeycomb proponents get really angry when I point this out because the truth stings like a bee.
It is indisputable that Tablet PC, Windows CE, and PlaysForSure were all abject failures. It took many years for those who believed in them to accept this, because on the surface all three seemed like such good ideas. All three were widely-licensed platforms made available to any hardware makers who wanted to use them, and they all found wide enthusiastic adoption from the same hardware makers now touting Honeycomb tablets, including Motorola, Samsung, Toshiba, LG, Acer, and Asus.
Like Google’s Honeycomb, Microsoft’s Tablet PC, Windows CE and PlaysForSure all promised to unleash the creative strengths of individual hardware makers while providing a commonality that would attract buyers with its familiarity and branding. PlaysForSure in particular also supported the idea of “open” media stores, allowing users to buy music and video from multiple sources. The only real difference that Google offers is that its platform software offers fewer restrictions and doesn’t cost anything. But it also delivers less to makers, who are expected to do more of their own platform integration work.
Android proponents keep repeating an “open choice” marketing line as an indisputable inevitability of the market as if Microsoft didn’t already provide a decade and a half of concrete evidence to the contrary, first with Windows CE, then in the parallel and overlapping experiment of Tablet PC, and then with PlaysForSure, the culmination of Microsoft’s attempts to focus Windows CE at a very specific market for media players, much like Android 3.0 is being focused to deliver tablets. If we need another example, we can rope in Windows Mobile, the primary destination of Windows CE. It too failed, despite trumpeting a very Android-like message about broadly licensed platforms in the smartphone world.
Why Apple can’t be too worried about Android 3.0 Honeycomb tablets taking away iPad sales: Part 1
Why Apple can’t be too worried about Android 3.0 Honeycomb tablets taking away iPad sales: Part 2
Why Apple can’t be too worried about Android 3.0 Honeycomb tablets taking away iPad sales: Part 3
So you have to ask yourself why
As Android’s previous versions clearly attest, manufacturers are not really all that excited about being turned into commodity hardware makers on one hand, and are also apparently inept at extending Android in unique ways that do not also create serious platform fractionalization problems or just poor products on the other. The only notable Android tablets to arrive have been Dell’s Streak and Samsung’s Galaxy Tab, both of which demonstrate how utterly lost these hardware makers are without Google telling them exactly what to do. This isn’t without precedent in the worlds of Microsoft’s broadly licensed platforms either.
Google faced the same frustrations with its Android herd of hardware makers in the smartphone business. Licensed Android phones with layers of divergent UI conventions and bundled junkware got so out of hand that Google created the Nexus One to demonstrate to phone makers how to build a phone that served Google’s purposes most directly. While the Nexus One didn’t even last for six months before being discontinued, it is still the only model during the Year of Android to manage to keep itself updated with the latest release of the OS in a prompt fashion. Remind you of anything? (Hint: Zune).
The messiness of Android is worse, not better, than the stricter licensing programs Microsoft managed in hopes of shepherding new generations of tablets, phones, and media players. One only has to look at the ultimate result of PlaysForSure to see the future of Honeycomb: Microsoft was so angry with what it saw as the incompetence of its store partners and hardware licensees that it abandoned both and began work on the Zune instead. Microsoft similarly tried to turn Windows Mobile into a Zune-like product not dependent upon partners and their foibles in delivering KIN, but that device fared even worse than the Zune or the Nexus One.
One has to think, if Google and Microsoft are both so bad at delivering controlled product packages like KIN, Zune, and Nexus, what qualifies them to manage the entire industry’s products on a conceptual, platform level?
Two more views on the matter
Conversely, we also have examples of pretty good products that vendors tried to turn into broadly licensed platforms with similarly drastic consequences. Apple’s early 90s efforts to license the Mac OS and Newton OS were both flops, as were Palm’s attempts to spread its Palm Pilot DNA across other hardware makers, such as its Clie partnership with Sony. One could also include BeOS and 3DO in this bucket of licensing failures.
Now take a look at things from a third perspective: companies with pretty good products who went down in flames after they began licensing other vendors’ platforms. Sony is a stellar example, shifting from the definitive high end consumer electronics brand of the 80s into the failed licensee of Windows, Palm, Windows Mobile, Symbian, Android, BeOS and PlaysForSure. Motorola, Samsung and Toshiba have all been similarly run over while trying to jump on the broadly licensed platform bandwagon, over and over again.
On the other hand, we have one good example of a broadly licensed platform that worked out well: Windows. It worked out well for Microsoft at least, leaving a series of dead PC brands in its wake as Microsoft skimmed off all the value of the top of the market: Amstrad, AT&T, Atari, Commodore, Compaq, Digital, Epson, Gateway, IBM, Kaypro, Motorola, NEC, Olivetti, RCA, Sanyo, Sharp, Tandy, TI, Xerox, and Zenith to name but a few failed licensees of Windows. Of the top five PC makers today, at least one has survived from the 80s having never licensed Windows, offering a counterpoint to the outlying data point backing the notion that broadly licensed platforms are inherently successful and fated to fall into place.
Soon, Xoom = Zune
After experiencing the brutal kickback of firing off Nexus One, Google does not seem eager to launch its own tablet hardware in the model of Microsoft’s PlaysForSure-killer Zune. Instead, it has been demonstrating Honeycomb on Motorola’s curiously named Xoom, which is just too reminiscent of Microsoft’s three generations of Zune failure to conceivably be intentional, yet too obvious to offer any explanation of how it could possibly have emerged from planning level discussions. Imagine Chevy launching a new car named the Edsal, or Pepsi having an epiphany to begin selling “New Pepsi” in a bid to woo young buyers.
Xoom isn’t just a poorly considered moniker however. Everything about its design suggests that Motorola approached the product with the exact same thought process that Microsoft employed in delivering the Zune. Neither company looked at the market and contemplated what sort of device might cause consumers to throw their cash at them in trade; instead, both are clearly efforts to simply produce an Apple clone with one or two features Apple didn’t include, and to subtract a few it did. Without, of course, giving much thought to how much value they were adding and subtracting by doing so.
The value of the iPad comes from its familiarity to iPhone balanced with its extra boost in sophistication delivered by its full screen and expanded user interface conventions. While initially derided as “just a big iPod touch,” the iPad is really a rather complete rethinking about how to deliver an iPhone-like simplicity on a larger palette.
Apple intentionally left out complicating factors such as a split between apps and widgets. It minimized the “chrome” of the UI down to nearly nothing to create an operating environment where apps themselves steal the show. Without apps, the iPad is actually pretty boring, like a bank pad of paper waiting to be applied in some way with a pen or pencil.
Google and Motorola happened upon this winning product and decided to make some serious changes. Instead of being a simple, almost blank canvas for third party apps, Google designed a complex user environment (perhaps derived in part from elements of the 3D BumpTop startup it acquired last spring and then scuttled) with two strips of standardized controls across the top and bottom, as if it were trying to be Windows and Mac OS X at once. Launching and moving between apps isn’t a simple matter of touching icons, but rather something that can be accomplished in as many different ways as you can view Control Panels in Windows XP.
You can drop apps on the desktop as simple buttons, but you can also resort to a drop down menu or simply leave open applet-like widgets that take up a tiny portion of the screen. Switching between apps isn’t managed by a Home button double click and swiping though icons graphically, but by pulling up mini-representations of each running app, a desktop-like convention Apple was certainly aware of how to accomplish, but specifically chose not to implement for the iOS. Was this just an effort by Apple to dumb down the interface to cater to people who couldn’t be bothered to learn a sophisticated array of new interface conventions? Yes.
If the world wanted a complex maelstrom of interface sophistication, it would have embraced NeXTSTEP rather than the hokey simplicity of Windows 3.1. If mainstream users had clamored for shadows and translucency and the marvels of an undulating user interface, Mac OS X would have been far more popular than the Fisher Price UI of Windows XP. PC users certainly didn’t respond appreciatively to Microsoft’s efforts to make Windows Vista more glossy and busy than Mac OS X had been, much to Microsoft’s surprise. Users also picked the iPod over the complexity of PlaysForSure and the Zune, the iPhone over Windows Mobile, and iPad over Tablet PCs, and before that, Palm Pilot over Newton.
We don’t really have many examples of a complex user interface blowing away a simpler one that’s easier to use. Our cars are designed to be driven by the most distracted of halfwits rather than looking like airplane cockpits. Google has already gotten a taste of how well its nerdy complexity will attract users with Google TV, which has not gotten a fraction of the love of simpler devices such as Tivo, which anyone can figure out how to use on a basic level in less than a minute.
In fact, the only place where complex, techie user interfaces are really popular are within video games aimed at a demographic of 13-25 year old boys. When you’re selling $800 hardware appliances, you don’t really want to target your product at young men whose disposable income is already dedicated to buying replacement Xbox 360s and upgrading their PC’s video card and Android phone every three months. Sure, there are some affluent men between 25 and 30 who also enjoy this sort of thing, but they all work at Google already.
Apple doesn’t design simple user interfaces because it lacks the brains to introduce sloppy layers of complexity, but because it has studied how people use things and wants to sell its products to the widest possible audience. Microsoft started to clue into this very slowly as it strived to copy the iPod and iPhone. Zune is simpler overall that Microsofts usual products, and Windows Phone 7 is so simplistic that its top licensee refers to it as being “boring.”
Perhaps that’s going to far on the simple meter. With iOS devices, Apple makes overall usability very simple, and leaves an open canvas available to its app developers. That results in a wide range of choices for consumers, who can decide for themselves if they want to stick with basic functionality or install a lot of complex apps.
The Big Screen Dilemma
Motorola can largely blame the Tron-like interface of Honeycomb upon Google. Like the newly remade movie, I think Honeycomb will be interesting for about 80% of two hours, then leave people wanting something a little more original with a point, rather than just a transient, pretty experience that bumps ahead a franchise a lot of people have warm feelings about. It’s hard to regret a $15 ticket to Tron (maybe once you factor in the concessions), but I can’t see how people are going to be satisfied with an $800 toy that has no apps. Perhaps I’ll be wrong on that front, because I’m not always spot-on in knowing what people will like. I was also surprised the iPad sold as well as it did.
Motorola made some interesting decisions of its own on the Xoom, however, and I feel more qualified to talk about how wise those were. It has a screen slightly larger than the size of an iPad, making it the first major Android tablet that isn’t in the 5 to 7 inch range that Steve Jobs said would be DOA on the market for being unable to deliver an interface that beats a smartphone in practical usability (because no tablet can beat a smartphone in portability, so they have to offer something more to make up for their bulk). It appears Motorola agrees with that sentiment. The problem, as Jobs also alluded to, is that using a full screen drives up the price.
An entry level price of $800 is very high for a non-Apple device. Remember that while Apple can sell its MacBooks starting at $1000, its competitors have no option but to begin selling their netbooks and notebooks at much lower prices in the sub-$500 range. Even Apple recognized that it couldn’t sell the iPad unless it hit aggressively low pricing. Consumers know that prices are supposed to go down each year, not inflate by 60 percent via the wonders of free and open software. And so Jobs was right: Android tableteers are going to have to decide between trying to offer cheap devices that aren’t big enough to be more than an oversized smartphone (“a big iPod touch” as they used to say) or full sized devices that are too expensive for the market.
At the core of the Xoom is the Nvidia Tegra 2, a chip that delivers great graphics, 1080p video, and offers a generational leap over last year’s A4, Snapdragon and the original Tegra. We heard a lot about how Tegra was going to blow Apple away before, in connection with the Zune HD, a product nobody has talked about since a few months after its launch, just like the LG Prada, the BlackBerry Storm, the Palm Pre, HP Slate PC, WP7 and so on. In looking back across three decades of computing history, I can’t recall any computing platform driven ahead by a fancy chip rather than a sufficient amount of software applications.
Xoom has a lot things the iPad has: an ambient light sensor, accelerometer, compass, 3G, WiFi and BlueTooth. It also has some things the iPhone 4 has but iPad lacks: a gyroscope, a front facing camera (that’s better than iPhone 4’s), a rear camera and a proximity sensor (so you can hold it up to your face, apparently).
It also has something unique: a barometer for sensing air pressure (hmm) and a HDMI port (something that’s necessary to get HD video off the device for remote playback, if you don’t have something like AirPlay to do so wirelessly). The Xoom also has a gigabyte of RAM, four times as much as iPad, and twice the amount in iPhone 4 and expected in iPad 2. That’s necessary because Android doesn’t manage available RAM as well as iOS.
These are all interesting decisions to make because Apple has already installed a certain bar of expectations, the most difficult of which to limbo under being the iPad’s price. Motorola isn’t still in 2009, safely protected from direct competition from Apple due to the technical differences of Verizon’s network. It’s not going to be exclusively backed by one of America’s twin mega-carriers. And initially, it will be only available on Verizon, the company that is currently selling the iPad and is expected to get a Verizon-only iPad 2 version with integrated CDMA support.
The hardware decisions Motorola made on the Xoom do not seem to be reflecting the reality of the limited window of opportunity still open to iPad competitors, which simply stated, is very cheap or special purpose devices.
Consumption Junction, What’s Your Function?
One of the more desperate complaints invented against iPad was that it was purely a “consumption” device incapable of real manly productivity work. Never mind that iPad is the only tablet capable of running a real office suite (Microsoft’s Tablet PC and Office divisions fought long and hard to avoid providing something similar a decade earlier), or that there’s all manner of text editing, drawing, image editing, turntable spinning, keyboard playing apps for iPad that aren’t around for any other tablet.
The whole “consumption” nonsense thrown at the iPad failed to stick, but how does the same complaints hit the Xoom, which uses a widescreen display aimed more at watching movies than actually serving as a more serious canvas for productivity apps? It seems as if critics of the iPad are still trying to suggest that it’s not serious enough, while picking up more toylike devices and getting lost in wondrous amazement of how great they can play back movies.
In the smartphone world, Android began to start selling devices in late 2009, a year or two after Apple established the App Store. We were assured that the balance of developers’ attentions would shift toward Android as its installed base grew. But that didn’t happen and hasn’t happened.
There’s a few reasons, ranging from fragmentation (about half of all active Android users are not on the latest API level OS revision, and can’t upgrade because carriers and makers aren’t rolling out update packages and the “you can install your own updates because its an open OS” claim is proving to be an outright lie) to Google’s poor stewardship of Android Market (a discouraging pile of junk similar to shopping at Ross) to the simple fact that people who are attracted to cheap phones are also unlikely to be interested in buying a lot of apps.
It’s hard to see how Android 3.0 Honeycomb is going to change this situation for tablets. Rather than evolving Android apps into a bigger, more capable form factor, Google launched what is really a completely new API and experience, requiring more work from developers to make original tablet apps, and requiring smartphone users who are familiar with Android smartphones to adapt to an entirely new user environment. Even Microsoft knew better than to make its Tablet PCs a completely unfamiliar experience apart from Windows.
Microsoft may have gone too far in trying to shoehorn Windows conventions into its mobile products (looking at you, WiMo Start Menu), but it doesn’t seem that Microsoft’s failure with Windows CE, Tablet PC and PlaysForSure was due to the lack of a radially new interface. Instead, those platforms all died due to integration issues between the hardware and software vendor, a lack of practical applications, high prices, and poor design decisions regarding feature sets. What Apple has gotten right with the iPad is its tight overall integration, a focus on third party apps, simple usability, very competitive pricing, and a design aimed at practical features (battery life, sufficient screen real estate, fluid performance) at the expense of frilly nonsense.
It’s not just Motorola that doesn’t seem to grasp what people really want. Toshiba is making what appears to be a Xoom-clone, and we have promises from Samsung, Asus and Acer, and other makers to build what appear to be functionally identical devices designed to run Android 3.0 Honeycomb. The core problem is that none of these are undercutting the iPad on price, matching its performance, or providing extremely attractive features that might make consumers want to pay half again as much for a device that has no apps and runs a first generation software revision that can only be more buggy than Android on smartphones (and don’t be fooled, Android is a frustratingly buggy experience on smartphones, even after two years of updates).
Those who believe Google is keeping Apple on its toes and keeping it competitive may be giving the search giant too much credit. When Google sucks it up and delivers an Android 3.x release that works on half the hardware requirements of the iPad, enabling far cheaper devices with compelling features and spawning a real market for apps that are exclusive to the platform, then Apple will have some competitive threat to drive it to lower prices and offer new functionality. We’re certainly not any where near there yet.