How Can Android Tablets Thrive 2: The Rebuttal

Last week's opinion column regarding Android's marketing efforts drew forth some hearty debate, and some interesting reader comments. I'm going to address them. I've got to admit, I was a little nervous writing up last week's column, if only because the commentariat here at Gizmodo tends to veer slightly more to the Android side of the fence when it comes to tablet issues. I'm relatively thick-skinned, but being flayed alive by a baying mob still stings a touch.

Thankfully, that didn't happen; while many of you didn't agree with me, things were civil and for the most part highly intelligent when it came to comments. Award yourself a gold star now!

There were a few repeated comments and ideas that sprouted up out of the article discussion; interesting stuff that I thought were worthy of a little more examination. If I'm being completely honest, I'm also stuck on a plane to Tokyo as I write this, so I've got nothing but time to spend on it.

A few simple ground rules: This is, once again, my opinion on matters. You're free to disagree. I've chosen comments based on how they've engaged me, but my commentary on them is intended as analysis of a position, not an attack on the commenter in particular (which is why I've not named commenters specifically). In some cases I've slightly paraphrased the original comments, largely to distil the core ideas that (I think) lie behind them. I may have missed your point, and if so, I apologise; feel free to educate me as to the errors of my ways. You're all free to have your own opinion, naturally.

And finally, yes, I know the rebuttal is usually presented by a party other than the original statement maker. But you're reading this right now, and if I waited for every single one of you to write it, we'd be here all day, and there'd be a terrible fuss as everyone tried to reach the same keyboard.

Anyway, on with the rebuttal:

“The ipad2 is at the end of it’s marketing life. That's why they're suing Samsung.” Nah. Sure, that's a glib dismissal, but I simply don't think the first part is entirely true as it relates to where the iPad 2 sits in the current tablet market.

Certainly, Apple is suing Samsung, and that's a business tactic. As I stated last week, I'm not entirely convinced that if the tables were turned Samsung wouldn't be doing the same thing. At the same time, Apple's got a legendary reputation for quite hard-nosed business dealings with anyone and everyone, and I can't ignore that. Equally, there's a fair share of Samsung components in every single iPad, and plenty of other Apple products besides. Frankly, it wouldn't surprise me that much of the whole thing was settled with Samsung's component producing arm agreeing to chop a quarter of a cent off the price of a capacitor, thus saving Apple a few lazy billion dollars. That kind of thing happens in business.

No, my dismissal of this is in the first part of the statement. Apple's in no hurry to replace the iPad 2. Not any time soon, anyway. They're still selling just fine, and whenever I read a rumour that suggests that the iPad 3 will be here by Christmas, I mentally file it away as interesting but a little insane. There's little that's genuinely challenging the iPad's market position, and Apple would essentially be bleeding profits away from itself by launching a new model this quickly. Yes, all the early adopters and folks who line up for Apple stuff have their iPad 2 tablets by now, but there's still that wider market that I addressed earlier. There's a lot of market for Apple to make money from with the existing unit.

The final reason I'd present against this case is a price one. It seems only a matter of a couple of days wait between a given Android tablet being on special somewhere — we've recently seen cheap Acer Iconias and Asus Eee Transformer tablets, for example. They're not on special for the fun of it; they're on special because they're not exactly flying off shelves otherwise. Indeed, from an enthusiast's point of view, you could be very well served waiting a month or two on any hot Android tablet release in order to save yourself a few hundred dollars. Meanwhile, I can count on the fingers of no hands the number of price cuts the iPad 2 has seen over the many months it's been on sale. Apple rarely discounts prices generally, but in the iPad 2's case, there's seemingly no need; they're selling anyway.

“How Can Android Tablets Thrive? Easy. Ice Cream Sandwich.”

I don't think it's that easy. Not for a minute. Ice Cream Sandwich will expand the functionality of selected Android tablets, especially bearing in mind that it's not at all certain that existing Honeycomb tablets will be updatable to Ice Cream Sandwich. Yes, I know it's meant to be the 'unifying' Android release in theory, but there's often a wide gulf between tech industry promises and the reality of them, especially when it comes to 3G-capable tablets that also have to pass through the Q&A departments of various worldwide telcos. Undoubtedly the hacking crews will get Ice Cream Sandwich running on all sorts of esoteric Android hardware, but the mass market isn't about hacking, and it's the mass market that Android needs in order to actually thrive.

Equally, Ice Cream Sandwich won't be an answer in and of itself. There's the marketing aspect I covered last week, as well as issues of design and price. Engineering new tablets to work with the new operating system costs time and serious engineering money to attain, and all that eats away at the eventual price a given vendor can afford to sell an Android tablet for. As it currently stands, I do think that making a dent in the iPad's armour will involve selling Android tablets at challenging prices, and that simply isn't happening for new release tablets — at least not yet.

“Android won’t make a dent in iOS domination, until Windows 8” OK, I've got to admit that I'm not entirely sure how Android will do better because of Windows 8, but leaving that aside, the spectre of Windows 8 is an interesting one in and of itself when it comes to the tablet market.

Clearly, Microsoft's got a lot to lose here. If iPad-style tablets (if you must, the (sigh) "post-PC era") take off in a major way, that'll cut into Microsoft's ongoing revenue in a very serious way. Microsoft's shown it's not afraid to throw frighteningly huge sums of money at technology ventures. The Xbox/Xbox 360's a good example of that; the advertising budget alone for its console ventures beggars belief. Microsoft's also been in the tablet market for a very long time; around a decade ago I remember seeing the original 'Tablet PC' models.

They didn't exactly set the world on fire.

Which isn't to say that history is bound to repeat itself. Windows 8 has a lot of promise, but again there can be a large gulf between promise and eventual reality. I'm especially keen to see how well the ARM based Windows 8 machines compare to their more traditionally Intel/AMD powered brethren. ARM-based Windows sounds good in theory, but the practical reality, and especially how users interpret their performance will be telling. I'll illustrate this by way of the humble netbook.

I really rather like netbook form factors and price points; I've still got an original 7-inch Asus Eee PC kicking around, although admittedly it's not doing much these days. The concept of an ultraportable at bargain basement prices was, for its time, genius.

Then it came time to use them. Every single time I've used a netbook on an ongoing basis, I hit a power wall, usually quite quickly. I'm a busy computer user, and once you load up a few tabs, do any kind of image editing or try to run anything in flash, the average netbook — and even those that, in their time, were meant to deliver exceptional performance — crawls to a halt.

I can't help but wonder if ARM Windows 8 tablets will be like that, at least to some extent. Microsoft's had touch enabled in Windows for a couple of generations, but never terribly well for regular applications. Most touchscreen notebooks and desktops rely on overlaid skins with oversized touch buttons, and the experience to date has been less than satisfactory. This isn't to say that Windows 8 ARM-specific Tablet apps can't succeed — indeed, Microsoft's throwing a lot of money at Windows 8 and gathering developer resources right now to make Windows 8 as good as it can possibly be. But the first time you load up a regular Windows 8 desktop application (and everyone will, at least once, to see what it's like), will it fly?

“Now do one about how if you go with Apple, you’re stuck with them, their offering of form factor and their 30% cut.” OK. I do enjoy a challenge. But in the interests of this not running overly long, and also in the interests of my being able to take a quick nap, I'll address this particular point tomorrow. Right now, though, I'd be interested in your feedback — even if you don't agree.

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