Update (11/28/2012): Well, we might be approaching the end of 2012, but I think the argument can be made that 2012 did indeed end up the year of the Android tablet. The platform hasn’t quite passed the iPad in market share, but it’s much closer: according to Techcrunch, reporting on ABI Research data, Apple holds 55% of the market while Android holds 44%. That’s well ahead of predictions even earlier this year. Personally, I think it’s pretty obvious that Android tablet makers finally realized that they needed to be far more price competitive while still producing quality products, and the rest would follow. I’ll go out on a limb here and say that I think 2013 will be even more interesting as Windows 8 and Windows RT tablets start grabbing some market share.
Update (4/13/2012): I’m happy to see that Android tablet makers are starting to pick up the clue phone when it comes to pricing their products aggressively (and, I think, appropriately). Toshiba recently announced their new Excite 10, which is priced at $449 for the 16GB version. That’s not earth-shattering, but it’s better than the $529 of the Excite LE that preceded it. In addition, Samsung is pricing the new Galaxy Tab 2 7″ 8GB at $249, and the Galaxy Tab 2 10″ 16GB at $399. The 7″ model is particularly aggressive, and should compete well against the Kindle Fire–while it’s $50 more than the Fire, it offers full access to Google services including Google Play. Finally, rumors abound that Google (in partnership with ASUS) will be releasing a 7″ Nexus tablet for $199, which if it’s of decent quality could be a popular device. Hopefully, prices like this will increase units in the field and make the platform more attractive for developers. If so, then what I write in this post might actually have some validity.
CNET posted an article speculating on why Android tablets haven’t been successful, titled “Honeycomb: What went wrong?” I take some issue with the article, both with its basic premise—that Android tablets have failed—and with its assertions as to why Android tablets haven’t done very well.
How is failure defined?
First, it appears that roughly 6.5 million Honeycomb tablets are in active use. I get this number by looking at Google’s Android distribution report and multiplying Honeycomb’s share of 3.3% by at least 200 million activated Android devices. This isn’t only an estimate, but I’m going to go out on a limb and estimate that at least six million Honeycomb tablets have been sold and are in use.
Is six million a failure? Compared to the 30 million or so iPads that have been sold since the original iPad was released, it’s certainly not a competitive number. But then again, I’m not sure I consider the iPad a simple tablet computer. Rather, I see the iPad as a consumer electronics products produced by a company (Apple) that’s built a very loyal following with millions of customers who will buy whatever they make, sight unseen. In other words, I think millions of iPads have been sold simply because it’s the latest and greatest Apple product, not necessarily because any great thought was put into the purchase.
This isn’t an indictment of the iPad or Apple in general. In general, it’s a fair amount of praise. Apple has done a remarkable job of building a brand with so much loyalty, and as a for-profit corporation they should be commended. As a technology product, however, I don’t see the iPad as a meaningful benchmark for success. I don’t think any other company can put out a technology product that will sell as well, and so I just don’t see how well a product does versus the iPad as a meaningful yardstick. Comparing the iPad 2 to the current crop of Android tablets (say, the ASUS Transformer Prime), I’d argue that there’s more parity between the two than the pundits seem willing to admit.
I think the more important question is: have Android tablets sold well enough to create a viable platform for app development? After all, if you’re buying a tablet today, that’s really what you should be concerned about. I think that six million or so Honeycomb tablets represent a viable market, and that with the introduction of Ice Cream Sandwich, which pulls tablet and smartphone development together, we’ll finally start seeing many more tablet-optimized apps developed and actively marketed. Toss in the Amazon Kindle Fire, which has sold millions of units itself, and the larger-format app development scene should become even more viable.
While I’m sure every manufacturer would like to sell as many tablets at Apple sells iPads, but they don’t have to do so in order to be successful. Rather, they only need to sell enough to achieve the required return on investment. No individual manufacturer sells as many individual smartphones as Apple (although Samsung is getting closer), and yet nobody can argue that Android is unsuccessful as a smartphone platform. I think we’re at the tipping point where Android tablets will achieve the same results. Nobody will sell as many tablets as Apple sells iPads, but I think 2012 will show Android tablets in general selling more units.
In addition, unlike CNET, I don’t find Android’s media ecosystem to be lacking, and indeed between Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Google’s own offerings, there’s plenty of good content to be had on an Android tablet, be it ebooks, music, or video. I’ve yet to see content that’s available on the Kindle Fire that I can’t get on my Transformer Prime, for example. If I’m wrong, let me know in the comments.
Bad marketing and an initial stumble
Second, I think that the Android tablet market, at least the real tablet market created when Honeycomb was introduced, was hindered by two important factors. Motorola stumbled out of the gate by pricing the Xoom the same or higher than the iPad, and in general I’ve found Android tablet marketing to be largely ineffective.
The first assertion is easy to justify, I think. Clearly, the Xoom was too expensive. Had it been priced the same as the original ASUS Transformer, or specifically $399 for the 16GB version ($100 less than the equivalent iPad), then I think the Xoom would have been much more successful. And its success would have given the Android tablet market in general a more effective kick start. We don’t have solid sales figures for the Transformer, but it’s easy to argue that it was far more successful than the Xoom and was the first Android table to generate any market excitement.
As far as marketing is concerned, I think only Samsung made a decent effort with the Galaxy Tab 10.1. Even then, though, how many ads or other promotional efforts can you remember featuring Samsung tablets? The same can be said for Acer, Toshiba, ASUS, LG, and every other Android tablet. The fact is, Apple has been so much more effective in marketing the iPad that it’s safe to say their in a different class entirely.
Also, marketing is more than advertising. It’s also how products are presented at retail. Not only does Apple have its Apple Stores, which are fairly Meccas for Apple’s intensely loyal fans, but walk into any retail outlet and compare the iPad display units to Android tablets. If you can even find the Android tablet display, the chances of finding one that’s actually working, with decent apps installed and without an update notice interfering with actual demo use are tellingly low. Why would a consumer buy an Android tablet that’s barely working over an iPad that’s fully charged, nicely displayed, and loaded with interesting apps?
The bottom line is that the typical consumer wouldn’t choose an Android tablet that they’ve never heard of and that’s poorly displayed over an iPad. I mean, think about it: the typical consumer probably uses “iPad” as a generic term for tablet, to the point where Apple might need to be worried that the trademark is in jeopardy (ask Xerox and the makers of Kleenex how that whole trademark thing works). I’m being facetious, but the fact remains: I’ve heard people use “iPad” to describe tablets in general, just as a year ago it was common to hear people use “iPhone” as a generic term for the smartphone.
That’s powerful marketing. And no Android tablet manufacturer has even come close to matching it.
My point here is mainly that it’s not Honeycomb that’s made Android tablets less successful than they could be. More important, Ice Cream Sandwich won’t fix the problem. Rather, we’ll need to see more aggressively priced Android tablets marketed at least competently, something that we’re already seeing signs of happening. The Amazon Kindle Fire and Barnes & Noble Nook Tablet are both aggressively priced and very successful (particularly the Fire), and ASUS priced the Transformer Prime—an excellent device—at the same price point of $100 less than the equivalent iPad 2. Acer is releasing the A200, at $329, which should attract those consumers looking for something in between the low-end and high-end tablets.
I think we’ll continue to see aggressive pricing in 2012, and coupled with better marketing—and, yes, perhaps better press around Ice Cream Sandwich—the Android tablet market as a whole will catch up to the iPad more quickly than many seem to expect. Already, there are some great tablet-optimized apps for Android, and I suspect the floodgates will open wide once developing for tablets and smartphones simultaneously both is easier to do and perceived by developers as a viable proposition.
I could be wrong, but I don’t think so. It’s not Honeycomb and its technical deficiencies that have hurt the Android tablet market, but extremely poor marketing and an inferior value proposition. Some people argue that there’s really no “tablet” market, but rather only an iPad market, which I don’t believe. Having used a Honeycomb tablet for almost a year now, I’ve grown to consider the format a vital component of my technology arsenal, and I think many other people are concluding the same.
Here’s to seeing all that change, for good, in 2012. But no matter what happens, one thing is for certain: we’ll see the same kind of product and pricing diversity in Android tablets that we see in Android smartphones. And just like with Windows PCs vs. Macs (and Android smartphones vs. the iPhone), lower pricing and greater diversity means majority market share. It’s almost inevitable.