Building a Better Tablet

“In 2012, XYZ Co have to build a better tablet [..] A REAL iPad competitor”

I hear this far too often, and for all the wrong reasons. Whether it’s from die hard Google-Lovers like Gina Tripani, BlackBerry-centric tech-blogs or Apple haters, the top item on everyone’s agenda is to release an iPad level tablet at a bargain price.

Release a killer tablet. Price this tablet head-turningly less than the iPad, make it run Ice Cream Sandwich flawlessly, and offer completely sandwiched-out apps that absolutely scream for the big screen. Forget trying too hard not to offend other Android device manufacturers.
Gina Tripani, Smarterware

The simple truth about all these posts is that making a decent tablet is simply not enough. There have been plenty of adequate hardware releases that could have been players had they been released on time with a real 1.0 version and some decent apps. But simply building a decent tablet on any OS and then hoping the developers will flock to your platform when they already have a viable and very lucrative market with iOS is not only foolish but incredibly naive.

RIM’s decision to liquidate their Playbook inventory comes weeks after company executives stated that they would try and be “more aggressive” in promoting the poorly selling tablet. RIM executives said the company would be forced to take a one-time loss of $485 million its BlackBerry PlayBook inventory. -HardwareCanuck

Let’s take the RIM PlayBook for starts, they created a decently spec’d 7 inch tablet with a Dual Core processor, two cameras with HD video capability, HDMI mirroring and all on one of the most robust Mobile UNIX platforms out there. However the company that pretty much invented mobile email neglected to put a native email client on it. Not even a basic one capable of MS Exchange, and then they didn’t apply any kind of remote management or security policies for it. The only way to use this device at work was to also own a BlackBerry AND get your IT and BES admins to open up the permissions to use it with your existing BlackBerry device. So instead of ramping up their own developers and creating a decent mail app, getting BBM to work on it from day one and then getting their corporate partners to also release some virtualization clients, networking tools, remote meeting client like WebEx, and then plying guys like Skype, DropBox, Evernote, Twitter, Facebook and Google to get on-board with a working app from day one. Without any of this in play, they never stood a chance of making a dent in the tablet market especially at the same price point as the established player.

Applications are where the tablet game is to be played. Without good native apps, even with the advances in HTML5, you simply aren’t going to offer anything better. Think about the some apps that are available for the iPad: Pages, Keynote, Numbers, iMovie, Garageband, Remote as well as the fully compatible to Exchange: Mail, Address Book and Calendar. These are all fully polished and completely usable either as compliments to the original or stand alone alternatives. Not to mention the other business apps that were built specifically to take advantage of iOS features like GoodReader, WebEx, Junos Pulse, GoToMeeting, VMWare View, WYSE Pocket Cloud and MS OneNote. Not to mention the plethora of rich Mac OS X developers who through their hat into the iOS ring like the Omni Group: OmniFocus, OmniOutliner, OmniGraffle; Dragon Dictation, Mindjet, WriteRoom, DropBox, Evernote, AutoDesk SketchBook and even Adobe with Photoshop and Acrobat though I would never use the latter on any Apple product since the native experience is far better and Goodreader outperforms on the iPad. All of this to say that the iPad launched with a rich selection of their own ready to use apps and where very quickly joined by multiple others.

The intersection of exquisitely-crafted native apps with ubiquitous networking and cloud-backed storage. [..] Used to be that native apps felt best but anchored your data to the device, and web apps running in a browser offered you ubiquitous access to your data but had a crummy front-end experience. We’re getting to a point now where you don’t have to compromise.
-John Gruber, Daring Fireball, interviewed by The Verge

Marco Arment wrote almost a year ago that there is no tablet market, there is only an iPad market. It is sad to say that a year later, his statement and most of his article still applies. The fact that a reasonably well put together but ill-fated HP Touchpad sold more units than all the Android tablets combined but only once it was discontinued is a true testament to Marco statement. HP had in fact managed to get the native Exchange mail and its basic app offering correct as well as creating one of the best Skype/IM clients I have ever used. Unfortunately they were unable to do anything else very well including getting the OS and hardware to gel properly. The fact that they priced the Touchpad at the same price as the iPad was again a big mistake.

A new survey from market researcher Maritz Research, however, indicates a preference for iPads even among people that own Android, BlackBerry and Microsoft Windows mobile phones. –Forbes

So many people got it so wrong that it’s quite remarkable that the only tablet to come close to popular acceptance is not even a real iPad competitor but a true media tablet: the Amazon Kindle Fire. Amazon where very smart to wait it out and see what would happen in 2011, by releasing a smaller colour screen touch tablet that acts like a eBoook reader as well as music and video player and basic web browser. The people who are buying the Kindle Fire are not looking to bring this thing into a meeting and replace a heavy laptop but are simply trying to make their afternoon commute a little better by watching videos or listening to music while finishing off that last chapter. And it does all of this very well, it never pretends to be an iPad, but if you live in the States and can take full advantage of the full Amazon offering, then you will most likely be happy adding in to your attaché case and leaving the MP3 player in your gym bag. It succeeds as a media tablet because it is its own device with its own unique functions. And let’s note forget that Amazon also make a Kindle app for the iPad and Android devices without ever ignoring the competition. This is probably the most forward thinking attitude of all the tablet makers, including Apple.

“Apple remains the only company to have lived up to the hype so far,” said Krista Napier, senior Canadian digital media analyst for market research firm International Data Corp. “Apple appears to be doing many of the right things both on the consumer side and increasingly on the commercial side.”
Simply put, it is going to take more than a nice product to mount a serious anti-iPad play, said Sarah Rotman Epps of Forrester Research Inc. To her, only one player, Amazon. com Inc., possesses the necessary hardware, software and distribution ecosystem to take on Apple in tablets. The online retailer has long been expected to announce a multi-function tablet to compliment its successful Kindle eReader, though officially management has remained mum on the matter.
-Financial Post Sept 1, 2011

So what do Apple and Amazon have in common or have done right that the other tablet makers can take advantage of? First of all they both offer end to end solutions. With each basic offering you can reasonably perform all of its key intended functions with any third-party apps. Apple has a very good productivity and creation tools, has a very well stocked music and video store and is even somewhat adequate with its book offering even though this was clearly an afterthought designed in response to the Kindle readers and iOS app. Amazon made sure that it had its product and services package ready before releasing the Fire and this obviously was the right decision at the time since all other tablets had obviously pointed out how to fail without it.

So why hasn’t Android been able to get any traction then? Gina pointed it out pretty well: There is simply far too much fracture in the Android space and Google never committed to launching its own Flagship Tablet like they did with the Nexus line of smartphones. They left it up to a few incompetent players like Motorola and Samsung who is more intent of cloning Apple devices than standing out on its own. Honeycomb was meant to be the great tablet OS that no developer really jumped on. And the reason that never happened is down to the core of Android relationship with its user base: non-existent. Sure there are a few hobbyist making a buck or two in the Android marketplace but they are fighting with an armada of free apps more intent on shilling cheap or free versions of iOS apps while serving up ads. Because, as it has recently become transparent, Android is more interested to catering to the networks (same mistake RIM made) than looking after it’s customers. Where Apple and Amazon use there devices to sell more content and services to their customers, the Android platform was designed as a vessel to sell the phone user to the Telco Networks and advertising customers. When you are holding an Android phone or any other Google product, YOU are the product being offered up to the real customers: Ma Bell and her friends. There is no way to excel in this kind of ecosystem since app development is purely motivated by the desire to sell more ads or gleam more personal information about the user. Security and app sandboxing in the Android world are never going to be a priority since they would both prevent the app maker and carrier from collecting more vital information about its user base. The CarrierIQ issue was so big because it broadcasted what we all already knew about the Wireless Industry, that anytime so much of our personal information flows through one unique source accompanied by geolocation, we have to be very wary of how our privacy is being compromised.

The simplest reason why we have not seen a better tablet than the iPad is that there just hasn’t been a better offering. No one has come up with a more complete package all the while innovating the space they have been defining, enticing developers to jump onboard and respecting their customers with a powerful user experience enough control to keep the average user and corporate IT departments happy. So instead of moaning after RIM, HP and Google for not building you a better tablet, simply ask them why they didn’t have a better game plan before shipping you a beta product, or why they didn’t bother developing any apps for their device or partnering up with some bigger partners and making sure they actually had some media deals signed before making you pay five big bills for an Internet browser with or without email.