Opinion: How Can Android Tablets Thrive?

Leaving aside patent issues, Android tablets are struggling to make a real dent in the iPad's armour. How can Android succeed in the wider market?

You may start preparing your statement as to how I'm a rabid Apple fanboy now, if you really must. It might save time later.

This isn't, to get it out of the way, an examination of patent issues. Firstly because I'm not a lawyer and not qualified to speak to them. Secondly, it's a matter of legal (and I suspect business) wrangling, and I'm not entirely convinced that if the tables were turned, Samsung wouldn't be pursuing the same course. It's business, plain and simple. For the record, I'd rather have a wider than slimmer choice of tablets to pick from. Just thought I'd get that out there early.

Apple certainly didn't invent the tablet concept, but to suggest that the current wave of tablet popularity is down to anyone but Apple is to be living in cloud cuckoo land. Yes, there were tablets before the iPad; nearly a decade's worth. The dent they made in the consumer market could be measured only microscopically. Apple turned that market upside down overnight and in effect created the modern tablet boom. This was done via a couple of factors, some of which the Android tablet makers have so far addressed pretty poorly.

That response as to how I'm a rabid Apple fanboy coming along well? I ask not to entice accusations of trollishness, but simply because sitting on my desk is an iPad2. And a Xoom. And a PlayBook. There's a T-Touch Tab somewhere too, but the less said about that the better. It's true that I use the iPad 2 more than the others, but that's more an App issue than anything else. Over time, my desk has seen host to just about every Android tablet going (Kogan remains a tough nut to crack for a review unit, but otherwise I'm pitching well), and I do like the platform; in fact there's been very few tablet platforms that haven't had something admirable about them.

My ideal tablet would probably merge the playbook's swipable bezel, WebOS' card metaphor, Android's configurability and iOS' ease of use (controlled though it may be) and superior app catalogue. My ideal tablet will naturally enough never be made, but this leads me to my first point. If you're reading this on Gizmodo, the odds are fairly good that you're only peripheral to the marketing efforts of Apple, and by extension, the marketing efforts that the Android tablet makers should be reaching -- but aren't.

Apple's success with the iPad came down to a variety of measures, but one that's frequently overlooked is marketing. Apple's very good at marketing, even though the company is infamously locked down when it comes to publicity. In fact, that's part of the trick; by saying nothing Apple allows the rumour mill to grind ever onwards; it's all still mentions of the brand. The big factor here, though, is something that's a bit hard to swallow.

I'm not Apple's target market. Odds are, you aren't either. I'll show you why.

I'm a technology nut, probably incurably so. Talk to me of the processor inside your new tablet, the resolution of your new screen or the number of calculations it can manage per second and I go weak at the knees. Or in other words:

Talk Dual Core Processor to me, baby. Oh yeah…

But Apple's pitch -- and the reason that Jobs, Cook, Ive and all can happily swim around in money vaults that'd make Scrooge McDuck's feathers fall out in envy -- isn't to me. Yes, I can look up the specifications of the iPad if I so wish, but they're virtually never front and centre. Compare that to the pitches of most of the Android tablet makers, and there's a stark change. Android advertising has all too often been obsessed with how many ports it has, screen resolution and the exact frequency of the processor within. That's fine for the hardcore tech market (and many of us are the early adopters), but Apple's pitch is to the broader mass market.

This doesn't mean Apple doesn't want your money, tech fans. Just that they'll take anyone's money, and there's more of them than there are of us. And that's money that the Android tablet makers would clearly like too.

Still unconvinced? In recent years, it's become harder and harder for technology journalists to get any kind of quotes out of Apple, and I'm convinced this isn't just a matter of them being secretive. They're simply more interested in the wider consumer and lifestyle market; more FabSugar, less Gizmodo, if you will. That's the market that's more keen on what a Tablet can do for them, whether it's spin photos, make video calls or play Angry Birds. Apple didn't invent any of those things, but its marketing ties those kinds of things into the core values of the product so that they, in effect, become the product.

Sadly, the best non-Apple tablet marketing that I've seen recently was for HP's stillborn TouchPad. Last time I checked (which was only a couple of days ago) there were still plenty of TouchPad ads adorning Sydney's bus shelters, and they don't talk about the processor, operating system or screen resolution; they're all about what a tablet can do for you and how it can enhance your lifestyle. HP took a big play out of Apple's playbook; it's just a pity that it couldn't or wouldn't see the TouchPad experiment through to maturity.

There's also the issue at hand of pricing. To date everyone, including the ill-fated TouchPad, has pitched pricing for premium Android tablets at around iPad 2 pricing. Any higher seems like folly, but equally (and again reminding you I'm talking broader market here, not just tech enthusiasts) pricing identically doesn't do much to sell and Android tablet as a category. Yes, there are those who'll buy an Android tablet very specifically because it isn't Apple, but again those are folks (including clearly a number of Gizmodo readers) with an understanding of the technology -- and that's not the wider market.

The wider market has wide familiarity with iOS, and while you and I might bemoan its lack of configurability or widgets, familiarity is often highly appealing those who don't care that much about the underlying technology. At the same price, and especially with Apple's marketing pitch aimed much more at the lifestyle than tech enthusiast markets, they'll still buy iPads.

This undoubtedly creates a huge challenge for the Android tablet makers. Unlike Apple, they aren't automatically in line for a cut of every other transaction made on their tablets; unless specific backroom deals are made, the margin of profit they'll make rests entirely in what they can make from the initial sale. The iPad 2 is aggressively priced such that it'd be tough to undercut it at a profit unless you could make more money out of what are essentially consumables -- be they apps, music, video or other digital goods.

This is where Amazon's proposed Kindle Tablet may have an edge. Amazon's clearly got both the marketing nous -- it more or less owns the eBook space with Kindle, after all -- and the ecosystem in place to provide a marketplace where they can get a cut of most of the sales on their tablets as well as whatever profit can be gleaned from the initial sale. Again, pricing will be key here; if as it's been mooted the Kindle Tablet is significantly cheaper than the iPad 2, I'd expect them to fly off shelves, even if the underlying Android OS is forked off a much earlier build than Honeycomb. That leaves the pure hardware OEMs in a tough position, unless they too can both out-market Apple and sort themselves out an ecosystem to generate profits large enough to make the initial purchase price attractive.

It's true that you can still buy (selected/not legally restricted) Android tablets and do your own thing with them, and nobody's stopping you from doing so. But with iPad sales accounting for anywhere from 80-95% of the market (I've seen various figures and far too many arguments about whether you should talk shipments, sales or a mix of both), Android tablets as a category simply can't thrive unless they hit that wider market that the iPad already does. Without thriving, OEMs won't be as keen to put money into less than optimal ventures -- this is arguably what HP foresaw with the TouchPad -- and that leaves development of new tablets very much up in the air.