The Swift Rise And Sad Fall Of The Asus Transformer Prime Android Tablet

The Asus Transformer Prime was the latest tablet to wear the title of iPad killer. It was supposed to rise up, powered by the all-mighty quad-core Nvidia Tegra 3, and finally stand tall against the iPad. It was supposed to use its keyboard dock as a mighty quarterstaff and deliver a memorable blow against Apple’s champion. But that didn’t happen. Asus is letting the Transformer Prime wither on the vine.

There is nothing sadder than watching a promising product die early. In the case of the Transformer Prime, interest and hype peaked before the tablet even launched. Then when the tablet finally hit retailers, users and developers quickly discovered locked software and buggy hardware. The tablet still has a chance to sell well. It is, even with the early hiccups, a stellar product relative to its competitors.

This is new ground for Asus. Before the original Transformer tablet, the company never had a halo product. Three short years ago Asus was just flourishing PC component maker testing the consumer market waters with a relatively small notebook/desktop lineup. The Eee brand made Asus a household name. But the Eee PC netbooks were just another bulletproof Wintel product. Sure, problems arouse and the Eee PCs were far from perfect, but the company successfully flooded the market with enough models to counter any bad press.

Android tablets are a completely different product than Windows notebooks. They require more precises marketing and launch schedules. Consumers also expect a more complete experience from the products thanks to the high bar set by the iPad. Asus is learning this the hard way.

Asus started teasing the Transformer Prime back in October through a Facebook campaign. There was never any talk of the launch schedule or price point. The tablet was finally announced on November 18th, but Asus still didn’t include the release schedule. Eventually, over the following month, several leaked screenshot from retailers indicated that the Prime would hit stores prior to Christmas. Then finally, Asus put rumors to rest and announced the tablet would be in stores and online on December 19th.

That didn’t happen. Retailers pushed back pre-orders as Asus failed to deliver the product on time. Eventually, just before the end of 2011, several shops started shipping out their first batches. It’s still not widely available from Amazon and Best Buy, though. Even if it was available, would-be buyers would be smart to hold off for a bit. Early adopters are singing a song of woe right now.

XDA forum members collectively erupted in rage yesterday after it was discoverd Asus locked down the Prime’s bootloader. Apparently 128 bit encryption is employed to keep owners from accessing key components and flashing new roms and kernels onto the tablet. The Prime is effectively grounded. This move prevents owners from unlocking the full potential of the tablet. Owners are at the complete mercy of Asus for system updates and improvements (like the current GPS and WiFi bugs). So much for Android being “open”.

This practice of locking down the system files is not new. However, every time a vendor ships a halo product with a locked bootloader, the Android community explodes with frustration. This particular move by Asus speaks to the company’s naivety. They simply don’t know what the hell is going on or who buys their products. Transformer Prime buyers are looking for a digital sandbox to explore Android. Geeks buy Asus products. They’re not John looking up recipes on Epicurious. If Prime buyers wanted a completely curated experience, they would have bought an iPad.

The troubles keep piling on. Owners are now reporting that the Prime’s GPS function is nearly unusable and the WiFi support is flaky. It takes forever to lock onto GPS satellites. So, in a classic anti-consumer move, Asus simply removed most references to GPS from their websites. The sensor is missing from spec list on this swanky product page although it’s still listed under specifications on this one. Reportedly the tablet’s thin metallic casing is to blame for both although Asus just pushed an update that is supposed to address the issue.

Asus could recover some lost love by unlocking the bootloader, but conflicting statements from Asus continue to enrage and frustrate owners. The Asus US Facebook team posted a message several hours ago promising an official statement was in the works. However, the company posted a patronizing message on its Italian page that said, in part, “Finally speech root: our position in this regard is simple. The product is guaranteed as it is.”

Asus is clearly in uncharted waters here. The company flubbed the launch and alienated their key demographic. That’s the formula for failure. Even if Asus recants and unlocks the bootloader, some of the damage is irreversible. CES kicks off next week and there will no doubt be several Android tablets competing for the iPad-killer label and looking to steal some of the Prime’s allspark.

Update: Asus just announced via its Facebook page that a boot unlocker is in the works and Android 4.0 will hit the device starting on January 12. Asus claims that they had to lock the device in order to meet certain DRM requirements and if owners choose to unlock the tablet, it will void the warranty and remove the ability to rent videos from Google.

The argument stands, though. Asus a company learning how to properly handle consumer electronics. As usual, early adopters are in for a good amount of pain and frustration.