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From The Other Side: Android Tablets, Open Source & More!

by on April 5th, 2011

Androids. They’re heartless mobile OS bent on world domination. Now that they’ve taken over the smartphone space, analysts are saying they’re poised to take over the tablet space as well. I’m not surprised to hear this in the slightest. After all, there are more Android handsets than iPhones in the US, and their app eco-system is in full swing. Given Google’s changing stance towards the platform in the past few days, however, I have my doubts that Android Honeycomb tablets will make that much of a splash…at least not this year.

It’s Not About Open Or Closed

Proponents of Android usually tout Android’s open sourciness as a major bastion of the platform’s strength and that iOS’s closed nature as a detriment. This is a fundamentally flawed argument. To be more precise, the argument shouldn’t be made at all. Over the course of modern computing history, open and closed platforms have thrived side by side, with neither being truly superior nor inferior than the other.

The same can be said between iOS and Android. Neither platform nor philosophy has produced a final product that greatly differentiates one from the other. Afterall, both OSes are touch-based, with icons representing apps, and swiping gestures for navigation. Furthermore, all the bells and whistles that differentiate the platforms doesn’t stem from an open or closed view of the universe. In fact, with Google delaying release of the Honeycomb source code and starting to better define a standard “look and feel” of the platform, they have more or less admitted that open doesn’t even matter.

(Granted, Swype on Android may be the only exception I would afford in this case.)

With The Help From All My Friends

One can’t help but compare and contrast the current tablet wars with the early days of computing between Apple and Microsoft. The parallels are clear. Apple comes into the market with a unified system, controlling the entire hardware and software ecosystem, whereas Microsft (and now Google) introduced a platform that is all things to all hardware makers. if the past is any indication of things to come, then we can expect that Android will own 90% of any space they play in, with Apple only hanging on with dear life. Say this aloud to yourself and see how preposterous you sound.

The reason that Microsoft dominated the PC market throughout the 90s and the better part of the past decade is that they had friends in both high and low places – hardware manufacturers and software developers (I’ll let you decide which is which). By making it dead simple to manufacture both compatible hardware and software, Bill Gates helped drive Microsoft into market dominance.

Steve Jobs learned this lesson (albeit through losing to Microsoft in round 1). With iOS, Apple has offered more support to developers in not simply creating software, but also in curating and presenting the software to be sold. This control allows Apple to maintain a stable of developers that is both highly capable and passionate in developing for the platform.

On the other hand, Google has spent less effort in preparing developers to code for Android, and this becomes apparent when you see the number of native Honeycomb apps available in the marketplace. According to Ars Technica, the Motorola Xoom only has 50 native apps since the tablet launched a month ago. This pales in comparison to the 1,000 native iPad apps when it launched a year ago.

Another fundamental difference between Google’s and Apple’s approaches is it’s relationship to manufacturers and suppliers. With Apple’s dominance and control in its supply chain, they can demand a much lower parts and manufacturing cost. In spite of Android’s dominance, the device share by manufacturer is split multiple ways amongst many different makers, destroying any economies of scale that is available to Apple. You can see this from the price of the Motorola Xoom or the Galaxy Tab vs. the original iPad when the devices launched.

Google, as a mere OS developer, offers little support to their partners in this regard, effectively forcing them to fend for themselves. For large device makers such as Motorola, this is no real issue since they already have the pipelines and relationships in place. However, for smaller manufacturers like Vizio, this becomes a real problem if they want to break into the tablet space.

In both regards, this lack of support will ultimately prevent Android from picking up steam quickly, while Apple continues to steam roll ahead in dominating this space.

Building Loyalty

The last detraction from Android really stems from Google’s inability to create a consumer friendly brand following. This isn’t to say that Android will never get the same recognition as an iPad or an iPhone. It’s just that Android will always be referenced with the device maker’s brand. It will always be the Motorola Xoom with Android or a Samsung Galaxy Tab with Android or the HTC tablet with Android. This only makes it more difficult to build a strong brand around Android, and could potentially water down the brand if it’s paired with a shoddy hardware manufacturer. Neither Apple, RIM nor HP will have this problem coming out of the gate for their tablet brands.

At the end of the day, I still think there’s a place for Android in the tablet space, and it really is a matter of time before Android will pick up momentum and start gaining more market share. Still, one must wonder if it will be too late for Google and other tablet makers.

I thank you for letting me indulge a bit of Android tablet ranting. I really feel that this blog would be remiss if we ignore the other elephants in the room. Think I overstepped my bounds? Or perhaps my analysis misses the point? Keep your comments clean, but do comment and let us know what you think.

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  • Anonymous

    Considering Apple was in the same spot with the first macs in the early 80s… it’s only a matter of time before Android does indeed take the majority of the tablet space and iOS gets the same market share as Macs do now. Apple’s closed shop doesn’t conform to mass mrketing, it conforms to making a product that works extremely well with the hardware it’s run on. And yes I say closed because Apple doesn’t allow iOS to run on other hardware platforms apart from it’s own.

    Apple fans should lose the notion that Apple will ever have majority market share for a long period of time in tablets or phones (pmps are a different story). That’s not necessarily a bad thing either. They make a healthy profit margin for their shareholders and aren’t going to go bankrupt anytime soon. So why worry. :)

  • Thedogsandi

    I don’t think the analogy to early macs fits, although it is quite popular to make it. Apple never had the presence in the PC market that they have in the handset and tablet market. IBM PCs were the dominant force once computers went mainstream in the early 80s. Macs appeared after the PC had made significant inroads in the office and the home.

    iOS devices have about 25% of the market share right now, with Android having a larger share but the real differences are two fold – the homogeneity of the Apple device makes it easier for developers and Apple dominants in the profits area of smart phones, with over 50% of the total profits from the industry. Dominance isn’t necessary, nor even desirable. Not being the dominant device means less concerns about trade regulations, the FCC and the FTC.

    Eventually tablets will go the same way but the results for Apple will most probably be similar. A smaller, more profitable share of the market.

    The upside, of course, is competition fosters innovation and all users benefit from that.

    (Speaking of Macs, interesting numbers showing that Macs in the home are between 35%- 40% of all computers, but because of the large number of business computers they still represent only about 10 – 12% of the total market).