Stumbling Towards The Future: The PC-ification of Android Tablets

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Did you hear that Lenovo is releasing a 10.1-inch tablet powered by a quad-core Tegra 3 CPU? Exciting news, I know: quad-core on a tablet is huge.

But is it really? Do we really have to be doing this? Is this what the struggling tablet market needs: a spec war? But what’s a tablet maker to do? Much like Microsoft fifteen years ago Google has more control over tablets than the actual tablet-maker. The OEMs are just working within Android’s confines, try desperately to wring more performance and marketing credibility out of the platform by throwing hardware at the problem.

Right now it’s the iPad versus the world. Consumers can either opt for the $500 iPad or pick from countless identical Android tablets. It’s a microcosm of the PC notebook market, really: You can either pick from two Apple models or hundreds of Windows notebooks, all the same. Either the buyer trusts Apple and opts for a notebook that’s nearly void of available options, or, as most consumers do, they choose a Windows notebook that better fits their use case and/or budget.

The iPad is a large iPod touch and to say it’s anything else is disingenuous. It’s a multimedia device with some content creation capabilities. But much like its smaller brother, Apple has managed to sell millions of the iPads without talking that much about specs. Apple can market its products solely on their functions since the company controls the hardware and software development. Apple doesn’t have to compete against itself. Lenovo, however, has to compete against Motorola, LG, Samsung, and all the rest of the Android players. This infighting is slowing Android adoption.

Tablets as a whole offer a new paradigm in computing. Mobile radios, thin form factors and finger-friendly touchscreens finally bring Stanley Kubrick’s vision demonstrated in 2001 to life. Tablets are teetering on the edge of finally offering fully-fledged computing on the go. But we’re not there yet. Right now, tablet OSes are not designed to fully replace the desktop experience (although Windows 8 seems like it might pull it off).

So far Samsung has seemingly used the most effective marketing tactics. Even adverts for its first generation Galaxy Tab centering around use-cases rather than powerful hardware. That tablet didn’t kill off the iPad but Samsung gave it the ol’ college try by supplementing the Android 2.x operating system with a rich set of Samsung apps and a smaller form factor. Even today Samsung’s tablet strategy seems to be focused on choice rather than just cloning the iPad. The company offers more tablets than any other, with a line featuring a 5-inch, 7-inch, 8.9-inch and a 10.1-inch model.

But even Samsung, maker of some of the best Android tabs, further fragments the Android market with this large lineup. They’re in a sense just casting as many lines as possible with the hope of catching something.

Asus and Lenovo follow a keep-it-simple mantra and rely on a smaller lineup. Asus has just the constantly-delayed Slider and the Transformer tablet with the successor hitting later this year. For some reason Lenovo feels the need to have a consumer and prosumer lineup with the $349 IdeaPad K1 and the $499 ThinkPad Tablet — both are very similar although the ThinkPad is targeted to business users with a beefier security suite and digitizer pen.

All the Android tablet makers are rushing to stake their claim. The iPad came out of nowhere and surprised them all. But as each maker outs a new model, the whole Android market gets a little more crowded, forcing consumers to look at specs to find the best product.

I find this rather entertaining: Go into any Best Buy and hang around the tablets for a minute. You’ll hear the most depressing conversations between consumers and the hourly workers. Consumers often want to know the difference between all of the tablets. More times than not, I heard responses that while true, such as the Xoom has a faster processor, are a bit misleading. Processor speed doesn’t matter. Nor does the amount of RAM or the particular brand. Besides screen size, Android tablets are all the same to the average consumer right now. Even when comparing specs, a task that seems to be a pastime of my mother-in-law, the only real difference is storage capacity. And that doesn’t really matter either.

Besides touting slightly different hardware specs, Android tablet makers have turned to the shady world of bloatware. Often listed as a feature, some of the bundled apps are unwanted resource hogs – just like their Windows counterparts. Some of the apps are legitimate deals, though. Lenovo loads their Android tabs with some of the best games and productivity apps but most others use deceptive trialwares and alternative services.

It’s a sad fact that Android tablet makers are at the mercy of Google. There is nothing they can do but advertise the minor differences between their wares. In a perfect world, my mother should not be shopping for tablets based on the number of processing cores. But since Google controls the most important feature of a tablet, the operating system, makers have nothing else to brag than hardware specs and price point.

Right now, in the last months of 2011, the iPad is leading Android tabs by a large margin. The gap doesn’t seem to be closing either. Consumers didn’t flock to Honeycomb and so developers didn’t either. The next Android tablet release is said to launch later this year and will, if the fanboys are to be believed, among other things, kill off the iPad and solve world hunger. But that’s what they always say. As more Android tablets hit the market at an increasingly desperate rate, the iPad trudges on. Maybe a few years from now, when there are more tablet computing platforms, hardware makers will be able to use sales tactics learned from years of personal computers. But until then, minor differences between tablets should be downplayed rather than featured and let the tab’s functions take top bill. It’s better to focus on how the tablet will change the person’s life rather than the clock speed of the CPU.