Why Android would lose the tablet race, even if it were started again today

I’ve written before about fanboys and the difficulty of maintaining a neutral point of view. So, to declare my interest, I’m mostly backing Android in the mobile OS wars: it isn’t perfect, but it’s better than the alternatives.

Saying that Android is going to lose the tablet wars isn’t exactly sticking my neck out. I’d like to defend a bolder claim, however: Android would lose if the tablet wars were restarted today, without Apple’s massive entrenched lead in apps, marketing and mindshare. The makers of Android tablets scored a catastrophic own-goal by waiting to see whether the iPad would be successful before committing themselves to making competing products. Implicit in all the Android apologist’s reviews of new Android tablets is the idea that Apple’s head start is the reason they’re more successful, and that Android has merely to catch up lost ground (a bit of battery life here, an optimised UI there) and it’ll once again be a level playing field. The Apple fans rightly mock this as grading on a curve, and yet it might be justified if the apologists were right that Android will inevitably catch up. Unfortunately, they’re wrong.

Apple make their devices differently. They have full control over the OS and the hardware, and design them from very early on in the product cycle to work together. Apple deliberately aims at a subset of the market, and eschews features that this market segment doesn’t want. They have mastered the art of taking features out of a product.

Tablets are not just bigger phones or smaller laptops, they are used entirely differently. Tables are consumption devices much more than they are creation devices. They excel in cases where a keyboard isn’t needed or gets in the way, but at the price of losing flexibility. People aren’t using tablets for web development. They aren’t doing serious photo manipulation. Or non-trivial data analysis.

It seems to me that the aspects in which tablets excel are exactly the aspects in which Apple excels. People who want tablets want a streamlined convenient experience, and are prepared to compromise on features in order to get it. Plenty of people exist who want more out of their mobile computing device than this, but they aren’t buying Android tablets (and they’re definitely not buying those clip-on-keyboard hybrid abomninations): they just aren’t buying tablets at all.

It seems to me that this whole argument has a persistent technology myth baked into it: that since technology B arrived later than technology A, it is a suitable direct replacement for it. Tablet computers required a lot more technological progress to get right than laptops did, but that doesn’t mean that they will replace laptops like Homo Sapiens replaced Neanderthal man. TV has yet to stamp out radio, because the latter allows you to do things (like driving a car or cooking dinner) that the former doesn’t. Voice calling never “replaced” SMS (which in fact flourished long after voice calling), just as video calling shows no signs of making a dent on voice calling. The vast majority of content on the web is still text and not video (or audio), since video is not a better text.

New technologies are less disruptive than this, and in a different sense more disruptive. Less disruptive in the sense that the old market doesn’t go away or even change that greatly, but more so in the sense that you often need a whole different approach to succeed in the new market. Right now Apple is the only company that has what it takes to take full advantage of the tablet market, and if any rival does appear I doubt it will be based on Android.

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