Despite all the hype, Android tablets haven't even come close to being as popular as the Apple iPad. So what will it take for Android to make a big impact in the tablet market?
Apple recently passed a huge milestone: 20 million iPads since the original launch in 2010. On the other hand, Android tablet sales have been moderate at best. It's difficult to know exactly how many have been sold because manufacturers rarely reveal sales data, and even when they do, it's difficult to take at face value. In early 2011, Samsung announced that the Galaxy Tab, launched late in 2010, had sold 2 million units, only to reveal later that the number didn't reflect actual purchases, just the total number of units shipped to retailers.
Many experts simply shrug and say Apple has a headstart, being the first competitor to market with a viable product. But a headstart often means little in the electronics industry. A decade ago RIM invented and dominated the smartphone market with the BlackBerry. But late in the last decade, the iPhone suddenly ate RIM's lunch, and now Android is starting to take over despite a remarkably fragmented product line.
Experts also cite the raw power of Apple's brand loyalty as the reason for the iPad's success. It's true that Apple has arguably the most powerful consumer brand in North America, possibly the world, but that has hardly kept competitors from overtaking Apple in the computer and smartphone markets.
No, the real problem is that there are still serious deficiencies in the current generation of Android tablets, powerful though they may be. If Android tablet makers truly want to grab a significant portion of the market away from the iPad, there are several things that need to be fixed.
Almost without exception, Android tablets have offered more hardware features than the iPad (USB ports, 4G connectivity, even 3-D viewing), but still not presented a compelling hardware experience. The iPad is thoroughly thought-out from top to bottom and has a quality feel. Some Android tablets have come close, but still don’t feel as polished or complete, and others feel downright cheap. For instance, the weight balance on the Motorola Xoom made it feel heavier than the iPad while holding it with one hand, even though it weighed basically the same as the iPad.
Most experts agreed that Android 3.0 Honeycomb, the version of Google's Android platform designed specifically for tablets, was an unfinished product. The recent release of Android 3.1 has fixed many problems and made the tablet experience much smoother, but there's still a big hole left to fill: apps.
"Honeycomb does lack apps, and it’s hard to find the apps it has that are optimized for tablets. The Android Market is a mess," Sarah Rotman Epps, senior analyst with Forrester Research, told TechNewsDaily.
Apple still has a lead in the smartphone app race, but the company has such an enormous lead in tablet apps that it feels like Android Honeycomb hasn't even showed up to the race. The productivity apps and games that have blossomed on the iPad have no counterpart for Honeycomb, and to make matters worse, the Android Market isn't any help when looking for tablet-specific apps.
Carriers and distribution
"[Tablet makers] don’t have the channel of the Apple Store to teach consumers what they are and how to use them. Instead they rely on the carriers, who don’t know how to sell them, and Best Buy, where they are crowded out by other products and each other," Epps said.
Carriers are more interested in pushing data plans than the device itself, which creates a disconnect for the consumer, thus diluting the brand message. It also makes the tablet more dependent on which carrier the consumer is on. Apple's model promotes the iPad, with the carrier deals as a secondary (and possibly even unnecessary with Wi-Fi-only iPads) consideration. Android tablet marketing is completely opposite, relying on carriers to market tablets, even the Wi-Fi-only versions.
Possibly the single biggest reason why Android tablets haven't taken off is that there is little pricing incentive to choose them over an iPad. One of the attractions of the Android platform was supposed to be that it was open source, meaning manufacturers didn't have to create their own tablet operating system and could therefore make a cheaper tablet. Yet nearly every Android tablet has been more expensive than a comparable (by storage space and connectivity) iPad.
Only within the last few months has a tablet broken the iPad's $500 barrier, but only by $50. Even though everybody likes to save money, most consumers are willing to pay an extra $50 for an iPad that feels more polished and has a much more robust app store. While the Android tablets certainly aren't horrible, there's little reason to pick one over an iPad unless it's significantly cheaper. Epps points out that many of the Android tablet prices also rely on carrier subsidies, requiring consumers to sign up for data contracts they may not want.
There are certainly some respectable Android tablets out on the market, and if they had been released in 2009, they could have easily been a huge hit. But it's 2011, and Apple already set the bar pretty high.
Epps put it best: "A successful Android tablet would need to undercut the iPad on price and deliver the same or better hardware and software experience. Doesn’t sound like rocket science, but we haven’t seen it yet."