when netbooks were the hot commodity, Apple lost share in the PC market. It had nothing to compete with the sunken prices and shrunken sizes of those miniature laptops. PC vendors such as ASUS and Acer, on the other hand, did well in the netbook segment, as they could call on their expertise in building inexpensive Windows notebooks.
After the iPad's introduction, though, the tablets were turned. While many PC vendors loathed the low profitability of netbooks, they were now faced with competing with their own products. With the exception of HP, which shelled out billions of dollars for webOS, the iPad set PC vendors scrambling to choose which operating system might best compete. Is it Windows, the devil they know, or Android, where they have far less experience than competitors from the smartphone market?
Switched On has already taken on the role that Windows might play in future tablets, but what about Honeycomb? In contrast to the original version of Android, which was in the works prior to the introduction of the iPhone, Honeycomb arrived a year after the iPad. Android licensees, particularly smartphone vendors, surely beseeched Google for a tablet-optimized version of their preferred mobile OS. But Google may also be a victim of the iPad's jujitsu.
For while entering the tablet market helps the viability of Android and keeps competitive pressure on Apple, Google itself has relatively little to gain from a strong presence in the tablet market even if it can gain such a foothold. It's becoming clear that much of tablet usage is in the home and growth is coming at the expense of notebooks, where Google already has dominant market share in search. Unlike in smartphones, where Android was able to ride the wave of carrier preference to become a force to be reckoned with in the U.S., there's a far more tenuous tie between the tablet and cellular service. And while we are starting to see more big names such as Acer, Sony and Samsung follow Motorola down the Honeycomb path, we're also seeing companies opt out in order to hit price points that are farther afield from where Apple is playing.
Of course, there is the argument that Android tablets also cause competitive pain for Google's search competitor Microsoft. But Microsoft is well on its way to an expanded presence in another computing setting that represents a better opportunity for Android: the automobile. More than a decade after the disappointing debut of the AutoPC, Microsoft has created a winning partnership with Ford on Sync. And at the IFA Press Conference in Alicante, Ford announced that it is expanding Sync to Europe. Clearly that opens a driver's side door for Android to power competitive systems. And if Android won't step in, car companies have another option in MeeGo, which is being developed in a dashboard-centric version.
Car companies are notoriously slow in integrating new technologies, but the vehicle is a platform where Apple has chosen to go with behind the curve with third-party connections rather than address the opportunity head-on, so Google can play to the kind of distribution that made Android a smartphone powerhouse. More importantly, cars are probably the second-most powerful devices behind the smartphone for connecting sellers to buyers in the physical world.
And that is simply core to Google's revenue stream. The company has demonstrated that it realizes this with its work on driving directions in its navigation app and has tried to seed the market with car docks for products like Nexus One and Droid smartphones. Like Microsoft, Google is doing some great work in voice recognition that is showing up on Android handsets. Sync has shown, though, how intelligent in-vehicle multimedia control can nicely complement smartphones. For Google, an integrated offering for the imminently connected car is a more important long-term priority than the relative homebody that is the slate.
Ross Rubin (@rossrubin) is executive director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.