Google unveiled Honeycomb today, their version of Android built specifically for tablet computers. It showed a good bit of their arsenal in the upcoming tablet war with Apple. The fact that they displayed part of it on a Macbook Pro, however, was an ironic reminder of how much catching up Google has to do.
Honeycomb seems stable, smooth, and elegant–a big step up for the OS. Google is making a really smart move in not trying to copy the iOS tablet interface (which is in itself a zoomed-in mobile phone interface) and rather has been focusing on incredibly rich widgets, notifications, and context-sensitive navigation bars.
So Google has a mature or near-mature tablet OS. What now? The iPad, and the rumored next-gen iPad have a huge head start. How can Google compete with thousands of native apps, rock-solid software, an enormous installed user base, beautiful retail locations? The answer isn’t clear, but if history is any indication, the search giant isn’t going to go head to head with Apple.
The tablet shown at Google today wasn’t a Google-branded device, but a Motorola Xoom, which will most likely be sold in cell phone stores when it launches. Apple’s strategy has been to release a single magical piece of new technology; a mature device creates a new market. Android has been playing the role of the fast follower, and it seems like Google will retain that role for now. The advantage that Google has is that it can rely on a team of companies to release tablet after tablet while the company continually upgrades Honeycomb until it hits on a killer combination that makes an Android tablet something that you might want over an iPad.
With Android phones, it took almost three years for that killer combo to emerge. And even if, by some miracle, the first Android tablets are as good as the iPad, these devices compete on apps. The iOS app store is a mature platform with a huge number of apps, many of which are natively written for the larger screen of the iPad. The Android market is flooded with a tremendous number of buggy apps, none of which are written for Honeycomb.
While Google says that any app written for Froyo or Gingerbread will work great on Honeycomb, anyone who has used iPhone apps blown up on an iPad screen will tell you that a good tablet app is much more than an enlarged mobile app. At its conference, Google showed 15 applications natively running on Honeycomb tablets. At the end of the conference the company promised 50 apps at its next event, but that’s still just a fraction of Apple’s offerings.
So will the Google tablet follow in the footsteps of the Android phone, transitioning from scrappy upstart to the No. 1 selling smartphone OS? Google has been able to put a dent into the iPhone’s dominance by flooding the market with hundreds of Android phones, from the inexpensive and feature-light to the flagship uberphones. But that approach will work less well in the tablet market.
A phone is a multifunction device, but generally it is used in a very utilitarian way: to make calls, to get information, to send messages, to check in. It doesn’t really matter if the experience of using the phone is pleasurable. Many Android phones are bare and functional. They get the job done, and at the end of the the day that is all that matters. A tablet, however, is all about the experience. A tablet needs to be elegant. Using an iPad is a pleasurable experience, and that pleasure is a huge part of the iPad’s cachet. If Honeycomb tablets start flooding the market with the usual Android growing pains–not enough memory, choppy animation because of slow processors, crashes, bad battery life–then Google may shoot its chances of success in the foot. No doubt eventually a truly great Android tablet will hit the market, but when it does, it may be lost among dozens of similar tablets that no one wants.