Nobody cares about Honeycomb tablets, not even Google. It’s all about Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich
It’s been what, almost 6 months since Motorola Xoom – the first Android Honeycomb tablet- shipped? We now have Honeycomb tablets from Acer, Asus, LG and Samsung.
None of them could make even a dent in iPad’s dominance.
And Honeycomb tablets won’t make a dent. Ever. Because Google itself does not really care about whether Honeycomb succeeds in the market or not- Android 3 wasn’t meant to do do that. It was just a placeholder until Google finishes forging it’s real weapon in tablet wars – Android 4/Ice Cream Sandwich.
The whole situation with first Android tablets strongly reminds me of Google’s first steps in smartphone market with Android 1.x in 2009.
Back in 2007 Apple invented a new kind of mobile computing device – iPhone. They called it smartphone, but I think it is a mistake to lump Apple’s new device into the same category as the phones people were calling smart before 2007. With iPhone, and especially with it’s next generation iPhone 3G – Apple has created a completely new category of mobile computing devices, and a new market. Still, for the purpose of simplicity, in this article, let’s call the iPhone – a smartphone, and smart devices that came before it – just mobile phones.
The new smartphone market was expanding rapidly and Apple completely dominated it in 2007 and 2008. For the first two years, nobody was able to offer any viable competitor to iPhone.
Looking at a new mobile computing/smartphone platform that Apple has created, Google saw a strategic threat to it’s core business. Even though Google apps like Search and Maps were featured prominently on iPhone, there was nothing to prevent Apple from switching to competitors like Microsoft’s Bing at some point in the future. And leaving Google on the sidelines of rapidly expanding mobile market.
Reacting to a new threat posed by Apple, in 2007/8 Google scrapped it’s previous Blackberry like Android efforts, and started working on iPhone alternative. Google had to put something in the market as soon as possible to get developers and other partners interested. That something came in the form of HTC G1/Dream with Android 1.0 , which shipped in late 2008. But when G1 started shipping , the new Android 1.0 OS running the device was still a work in progress, not a finished, market ready product. It was extremely buggy, had poor UI and lacked some essential functions – like SD card support. Even Andy Rubin admitted that Android running on G1 wasn’t actually worthy of a 1.0 version number.
Situation improved a bit with the release of Android 1.5 Cupcake in May and 1.6 Donut in September. More and better Android phones started appearing on the market – HTC Magic, Samsung Galaxy i7500, HTC Hero, Motorola Cliq. But Android 1.x was still a half baked product, with a pretty bad usability and little customer appeal. New Android device activations were stuck at a 30K a day level – a run rate of less then a million of Android smartphones a month, and well below the number of iPhones shipping at that time. Developers also did not care much for Android, mostly preferring to focus their efforts on making it in Apple’s Appstore, with Android as a distant afterthought.
This lackluster Android performance continued while we had only Android 1.x devices available.
But Google did not care much about how Android 1.x was doing. They got what they needed from it – a foothold in the market and real world use data to work with. Even in early 2009, when Android Cupcake/Donut updates were still underway, Google’s eyes were already on the main prize – Éclair -the second generation of Android. I’ve been going through my archives and stumbled on these musings about Android by Eldar Murtazin, from Mobile World Congress in February 2009:
Android is pretty well stuck right now, because of Google, which does not really want to strongly promote Android devices yet. They have a key partner – HTC – which already released/announced phones (Dream, Magic) based on Android 1.0.
The first release of Android OS – it’s Google making a claim for the future position in mobile OS market. It is more like a marketing tool to train the public on Android and also to give the developers a live device to make the apps for. Though there will be some interesting new Android devices coming from HTC and others later this year.
Android 2.0 looks pretty sad. Android won’t get to the level Google and partners want to see it on until releases 3.0 and 4.0. It has multiple partners working on Android 3.0 devices and there were some demos of the handsets with Android 3 in closed showrooms. They look fantastic. The problem is that Android 3.0 is not slated for release until the mid of 2010, with version 4 to follow in 2011. So it will be a while until Android devices reach their full potential.
Remember, we are talking about February 2009 here. The only Android device that was shipping then was HTC G1/Dream. Replace those version numbers – 2 with 1.5/1.6 and 3 with 2.1/Éclair – and Eldar pretty much nails it. (Well, there’s no original Droid and Nexus S mentioned, but there’s only so much you can learn 9 months out in the tech industry).
Google never really cared much about promoting any of it’s Android 1.x devices. The prize and main effort was always Android 2.
Google started with the unfinished Android 2.0 Éclair version on the original Verizon Droid, with a huge U.S. promotion campaign. Big G even thought that with Android Éclair on Nexus One, they can get into mobile phone business themselves, and got slapped hard by mobile carriers. But the real worldwide Android explosion happened in Q2/Q3 2010, when second generation Android devices like HTC Desire and Samsung Galaxy S started shipping en masse.
And what do we have today with Android tablets? The action is unfolding pretty much the same as it did in 2008/2009 for smartphones.
With iPad launch in early 2010, Apple invented/created and now owns the new, rapidly growing portable post PC computing market . After seeing iPad, Google dropped whatever plans they had for the next generation of Android OS in early 2010, and refocused it’s efforts on creating a tablet OS of their own. The time was short and they had to “take a few shortcuts”, like dropping any smartphone support from Honeycomb, thus radically forking Android for at least a year. Then Google rushed to market with half baked Android 3.0/Honeycomb on Motorola Xoom, and are now doing small tweaks/incremental patches with Android 3.1 and 3.2.
And, just as it happened in 2009 with Android 1.x smartphones, nobody except tech press seems to care about Android tablets. It’s all iPad all the time for average Joe. According to some estimates, almost 6 months after launch – there are only 1.21 million of Android tablets in customer hands. Android developers are not too impressed either, with very few of them bothering to rewrite apps to run on Honeycomb, while iPad apps are growing like crazy… But that’s ok.
Consumers and developers do not care much about Android Honeycomb, and neither does Google. In 2011 Google is just staking it’s claim, warming up for a real fight over the tablet market. The real fight that will start late this year or early in 2012, when the fourth generation of Android, called Ice Cream Sandwich, is released.
Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich will again unify two separate forks of Android, by enabling Honeycomb based UI/OS to run on smartphones. Next year all Android flagship handsets will be launching with Ice Cream Sandwich, and the number of Android 4.0 devices will skyrocket. So all Android app developers will have to rewrite their apps for Ice Cream Sandwich phones. For many of them, only small additional effort will be required to make those same apps run natively on Android 4 tablets. Thus quickly solving the App draught problem current Honeycomb tablets face.
And then it will be up to Google and it’s manufacturer partners to create Android tablets that can finally pose a real challenge to iPad dominance. Will Google succeed, with Android tablet sales exploding in 2012, like smartphones sales did in mid 2010? Who knows. Based on Google’s past record – I’d say they have an extremely good chance. But it’s very dangerous to project past performance into assured future success. Competitive dynamics are very different every time.
E.g., in tablet market, there is one key force missing, that played a huge role in success of Android smartphones. Mobile carriers. Tablet market is much more like a PC market, and carriers have very little influence on consumer choices there. So they won’t be able to provide any real boost to Android tablet sales. On the other hand, Google’s PC manufacturing partners are now even more desperate to create a viable iPad alternatives, then mobile vendors were to get something to to compete against iPhone back in 2009. Someone of them may succeed.
The only thing I can promise you now, is that the fight over the tablet market in 2012 should be no less interesting then what is happening with smartphones today.