Google, if the rumors are true, has turned to long-time Android supporter (and arguably the only OEM really making a success out of Android) Samsung for the next Nexus tablet, and unlike the budget Nexus 7 it’s a direct challenge to the iPad. Blasting past Apple’s “Retina” boasts with a 10.1-inch, 2,560 x 1,600 display, there’s no doubting that such a slate would be a joy to the eyes, but it’ll take more than ribald resolution to address Google’s lingering Android tablet problem, and no amount of fancy Samsung hardware can do that.
Android has never had a device problem. Some of the most innovative and boundary-pushing hardware we’ve seen of late is running Google’s OS: fast chips, impressive screens, superlative connectivity; capable cameras; a smorgasbord of options to suit your hand, and pocket, and wallet. That’s not to say there isn’t innovation going on elsewhere – Apple keeps churning out compelling devices, and I’ve had a soft-spot for a while for Nokia’s PureView tech – but suffice to say you could never accuse Android of lacking in pure gadget appeal.
The Nexus 7 was compelling, then, not because of its hardware, but because of the balance it represented between specs and price and capabilities. A sub-$200 tablet with a highly usable screen, sure it lacked some of the bells & whistles – like a rear camera – but ASUS and Google had good excuses for their absence, and the promise that when Jelly Bean gets replaced, Nexus 7 owners will be quickly treated to the next version.
At its launch, I speculated that Google’s goal with the Nexus 7 was to encourage consumers to begin paying for apps rather than relying on free, or ad-supported software. Google’s $25 of free Play store credit was contingent on registering a credit card or other payment option, for instance, and the Nexus 7 was delivered already linked to the buyer’s Play account. Android users have long been known as favoring free apps to a greater extent than iOS users, and Apple hasn’t stinted from rolling out those “average spend” stats whenever it can.
The Nexus 7 had another purpose: encouraging Android developers themselves to create more applications for the platform. Not just any apps, though: software for tablets.
Giving out a free tablet device and hoping apps follow isn’t a new strategy; in fact, Google tried it itself at I/O in 2011, a year before. It was Samsung doing the honors with hardware too, funnily enough, in the shape of the original Galaxy Tab 10.1 (complete with a fetching limited edition Android-themed back panel). “Go, take our slender Honeycomb tablet” was Google’s message, “and reward us with applications so plentiful they knock the iPad into a cocked hat!”
Unfortunately, things didn’t quite go to plan. Honeycomb proved underwhelming, just like sales of the Android tablets running it, and then the Ice Cream Sandwich update was slow to appear, and finally – by the time Jelly Bean appeared on the horizon, looking smooth and compelling – Samsung decided it wasn’t going to bother updating the Galaxy Tab 10.1 any more anyway. All of those developers carefully prepared with hardware, only to discover that they couldn’t test their apps on the latest version of Android unless they installed it via unofficial routes.
The end result is, well, little change from the state of Android tablet app play 18-24 months ago. At a time when the App Store is flourishing with apps for the iPad, the Play market is still all too often smartphone-centric in its wares. It’s still hard to put together a convincing list of tablet apps that show off the best of Android hardware.
In the meantime, we’ve had no shortage of clever, unusual Android tablets to choose from. We’ve seen removable keyboards and digital pens; accessories and add-ons Apple has never bothered with. And, with third-party developers apparently so reluctant, manufacturers like Samsung and others have stepped up with apps to take advantage of those features themselves, and in the process increased the likelihood that the tablet will be delayed in getting the next version of Android fresh from the Google spout.
Any Samsung launched under the Nexus brand will have pure Android as Google intends it, but that also means none of Samsung’s own app handiwork to fill in the gaps. All buyers will have to play with is what’s in the Play store today, and the bulk of that is software intended for phones. The Nexus 7 could get away with it because, at a pinch, an embiggened Android smartphone app looked okay on its 7-inch screen. On a Retina-slaying Samsung super-slate, with 10.1-inches to play with, that’s simply not going to fly. Google needs to figure out how to wake more developers up to Android tablet apps, or the Samsung Nexus 10 is only going to emphasize how poorly prepared the platform is.