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Switched On: Android's tablet troubles

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Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

If Google had to pick a device category in which it wanted Android to dominate, it would certainly be mobile phones for many reasons. Indeed, the original band of Android backers was dubbed the Open Handset Alliance. However, a strong position in tablets would not only have helped to round out the Android ecosystem, it would also have created a beachhead from which to take on Microsoft prior to the launch of its tablet strategy.

Alas for Google, sales of Android tablets have been lackluster and several PC-centric licensees -- including Acer, Dell, Lenovo, Sony, Toshiba and even Android standard-bearer Samsung -- are hoping to improve their standing in the tablet market with imminent products based on Windows.

With just a few weeks before that onslaught and a new iPad expected, Google recently implored developers yet again to optimize for tablets, detailing guidelines to enrich their apps for the larger form factors. This is at least the fourth major attempt by the Android benefactor to step up developer support for its tablets.

Round One

After the lackluster performance of the original 7-inch Galaxy Tab, Google seemed to start things off on the right foot (at least in terms of encouraging optimization) with the Honeycomb release of Android. However, the relatively low volumes of that operating system may have put off developers to the idea of optimizing Android apps for tablets. Indeed, Google set a precedent by refusing to establish a tablet-optimized classification for what was then Android Market, a stark contrast to the highlighting of iPad apps in Apple's App Store.

Round Two

Things seemed as if they would get better with the release of Ice Cream Sandwich, which finally reunited the tablet and handset (and TV) versions of Android under code that Google made available. At its launch, Google promised to make an extra effort to encourage optimizations for tablets while sticking to its guns on not highlighting tablet-optimized versions of software. Apple continued to showcase the higher quality of iPad apps versus their Android tablet counterparts, including Twitter (which has likely been turned off by Google's aggressive marketing of a competitor in Google+).

Round Three

The success of the original Amazon Kindle Fire brought Google back to a play from its handset playbook. It partnered with a licensee to create a Nexus device and, like Amazon, highlighted the digital media commerce integration of the Nexus 7 at a low device price. The Nexus 7 served to raise the profile of Android tablets, but hasn't moved the needle dramatically and of course has had almost no impact on where the real volume has been in terms of the iPad and the hybrid-honed ambitions of PC vendors.

Throughout all this, Google has continued to push for tablet apps while trying to cling to the idea that all apps should be scalable. That, though, is an inordinately developer-focused message. Consumers don't care about how apps come to take advantage of their devices, but they do notice an experience that doesn't measure up to what a device is capable of. Google must match its Google Play push with its Android app efforts. It doesn't necessarily need to create a tablet app category. However, much as it wouldn't want to sell low-fidelity music or movies riddled with compression artifacts, it must do a better job of consistently matching optimized apps to a tablet audience. That is the best way to reward developer effort.



Ross Rubin is principal analyst at Reticle Research, a research and advisory firm focusing on consumer technology adoption. He shares commentary at Techspressive and on Twitter at@rossrubin.

All products recommended by Engadget are selected by our editorial team, independent of our parent company. Some of our stories include affiliate links. If you buy something through one of these links, we may earn an affiliate commission.
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