Tablet Thoughts

Two months ago and with the urging of my lovely bride, I splurged on a toy I did not need but has become quite frequently used – a Xoom tablet. For those not immersed in the Android geek zeitgeist, the Xoom was intended to be the first “Pure Android” tablet, the first one actually blessed by Google, and hoped to be the iPad Killer. It fell short of killing much of anything, but all the reviewers said it was a nice piece of kit, just too expensive. In the Spring of 2011, it was a $799 device; in August of 2012, it was $199. My how the mighty have fallen.

This is not to say that it’s not a great device, it was just priced out of the market. 800 bucks is how much I spend on a desktop computer that can play Crysis, it’s not even close to what I’d pay for something that I use to surf the web from my recliner. It’s obvious that I’m not the only one with that opinion, as the $200 7″ tablet market is quite competitive. Somehow, nobody has been able to beat Apple on the price and quality of their 10″ tablets, but since Steve Jobs famously said that 7″ tablets were stupid and wrong, Amazon was able to get a toehold there. People like $200 devices. When the VCR was young, it had to drop to $200 before people would buy them. The same phenomenon happened with CD players, DVD players, ad nauseum. At $500 or more, the iPad is a luxury item and requires thinking and planning to purchase for most of us. At $200, the Kindle Fire was a ludicrously popular Christmas gift.

Now we have the iPad Mini on the market, a 7.9″ shrunken iPad 2 and the cheapest iPad ever. Of course, it’s not the cheapest decent tablet ever – that’s the $159 Kindle Fire (2012 edition). These two devices should probably not be compared head-to-head, since even the rather elderly silicon in the iPad Mini can kick the Fire’s digital butt without raising a sweat. But, we also have the Google Nexus 7, which is cheaper and more powerful than the Mini. And, we also have the coming Nexus update next week, with promised price drops and a higher-memory model. We’ll see how that works out.

There was a rather strange period in the Mini introduction where Apple showed how much larger a 7.9″ screen was compared to a 7″ screen. Of course, they used the aspect ratio to their advantage as well, only demonstrating applications that didn’t take advantage of a 16:9 screen. But, using the number of inches of screen as a discriminating factor seems odd to many geeks – we care much more about the number of pixels. And here, the Mini is at a disadvantage. There is not a tablet on the market from a big manufacturer other than the Fire (non-HD variant) with a lower number of pixels than the Mini. I’m sure the screen is quite pretty, but it’s just a peculiar thing to go on about.

Much more important in the comparison was the problem of Android tablet apps. They suck. I’ve had my Xoom for two months now, and I’ve never used an iPad of any kind for comparison, but Android tablet apps are a mixed bag of great and shitty designs. I love using my Xoom as a radio for when I’m reading, tuning into KROQ in Los Angeles or KNDD in Seattle. None of the online radio apps recognizes that a tablet is not a phone. They all have portrait-only interfaces and are just crappy to operate. Even Pandora, which has a decent tablet app that wastes a relatively low amount of space, has a homescreen widget that doesn’t work on a landscape orientation without cutting off its control buttons. Games are a definite bright spot, but I notice that a lot of games on Android are subsets of their iOS equivalents. I loved Galaxy on Fire 2, but it’s not a very long game until you look at the DLC. This DLC is, unfortunately, only available on Apple products. Android gets the base game and should be happy for it! I really like Plants vs. Zombies on Windows, but the Android version is incompatible with anything using Android 4.x – so that kills it for the Nexus 7 and my updated Xoom as well as any newer devices coming out. There are a lot of reasons for the moribund application development for Android tablets (market share, fragmentation, piracy, to name a few), but I’ll let analysts beat that drum. Looking at it from an end-user perspective, it just sucks.

So, Apple points out that of the gajillion apps in the App Store, over a quarter million of them are tablet-specific. And when Apple says tablet-specific, they don’t mean, “make your phone app bigger.” Those apps are well-designed and use the large screen of the tablet to good effect. The ecosystem is an ever-more-important part of a gadget purchasing decision. Amazon realized that early on, with their Kindle ereader producing massive lock-in and extending that to the Kindle video and music ecosystems. Apple has been heavily invested in promoting their iTunes/App Store ecosystems and they are winning this competition. The race isn’t even close, and anyone who claims otherwise should probably be examined professionally.

Apple charges a premium when you just compare the hardware. But, there’s no fragmentation in their App Store, and there’s a great supply of apps. Is the enormous gulf between iPad apps and Android tablet apps enough to validate charging $130 more for worse hardware? As we get closer to the holiday purchasing frenzy, it should be interesting to watch how much people are willing to pay for the ecosystem over the hardware.