There’s a report this week about Google’s expected announcement of their take on a tablet that best exploits the perceived values of the Android OS. As you know, previous Android tablets have essentially gone nowhere. The possible exception is the Amazon Kindle Fire, which, although it uses an older version of Android, carries a custom interface theme that essentially hides its true origins. Even there, Fire sales reportedly didn’t hold up after the holiday season ended.
Now I wouldn’t presume to comment on a product I haven’t seen, and anything you read so far about Google’s supposed “Nexus” tablet is pure speculation, unless it was fed directly by Google. But then it would be little more than corporate spin.
Google has used the Nexus branding to introduce smartphones that supposedly represent the best in Android technology. Of course, the media forgets that the first Nexus was a miserable failure in the marketplace, partly because Google didn’t have a clue how to sell and support consumer products. Well, maybe they will learn when that expected tablet appears.
In any case, the media is once again suggesting that whatever Google offers must be a legitimate competitor to the iPad. It can’t possibly be another also-ran in a long line of also-rans because that would play against the meme that Apple must fail, someday, when the right iPad killer comes along. As you recall, they said the same about would-be iPod killers for years. When Microsoft rolled their own with the Zune, the claims of inevitable success for Apple’s competitors rose to a fever pitch. But the customers weren’t listening.
Update: The $199 Google Nexus 7 (for seven inches I suppose), to be built by Asus, will ship in July according to Wednesday’s announcement. But it seems more of a media consumption tablet, competing with the Kindle Fire, than any potential competition for the iPad. The base model has 8GB RAM. A 16GB version will cost $249, taking it closer and closer to iPad 2 territory. I fail to see what’s so compelling about it, but the Nexus 7 may represent Google’s conclusion that they can only hope to compete with the iPad by selling cheaper gear. I’m also skeptical about the prospects for the $299 Nexus Q, yet another TV set top box, when compared to the $99 Apple TV. Didn’t Google get the memo?
Just last week, the media was suggesting that the Microsoft Surface tablet would be “the one” to give Apple a sorely deserved comeuppance. Microsoft will show Apple a thing or too, but it also seems as if the Surface is fundamentally a tiny PC. That impression is clear when you see the photos that depict an open cover sporting a keyboard and trackpad. It’s a miniature PC, not a tablet in the iPad tradition. Think of netbooks revisited. Microsoft still believes in Windows everywhere, and thus is striving to make all their computing products sport nearly the same user interface, including touch-based gestures.
Now the claim of the Surface vanquishing the iPad sits on thin ice. Even those alleged “hands on” reviews of the Surface were nothing of the kind. Where reporters were given a chance to touch the prototypes at last week’s media event, facetime was limited to seconds, not even long enough to type a short sentence. Just what doesn’t Microsoft want you to know? Oh yes, one journalist who tested the touch interface briefly found that it lagged. From a promised flagship gadget to demonstrate Microsoft’s “expertise” and building mobile computers?
At best, even if the Surface does actually appear in one form or another, Microsoft says sales will be limited to their online store and tiny Microsoft Store chain. Hardly a way to promote mass acceptance of any product, or maybe a way to avoid offending their OEMs. But it may well be that Microsoft merely hopes to give those OEMs a wakeup call in response to their lame concepts for Windows 8 tablets. Maybe Microsoft will ultimately agree to license Surface as a reference platform, similar to what Intel does for Ultrabooks.
The reason there’s an Ultrabook platform at all is because PC makers weren’t able to come up with their own compelling ideas to compete with the MacBook Air. At the same time, you have to realize that these PC makers don’t have lots of spare cash to pour into R&D. They have to pay Microsoft fees for OS licensing for every computer they sell, and they are forced by the competition to make PCs as cheap as possible. So profit margins are slim. Here the Microsoft ecosystem and the rush to the bottom have actually helped Apple.
That doesn’t let Apple off the hook. It is very possible for a Google, a Microsoft, or some other company to build products that are superior to the iPad in many respects. It is possible for these and other companies to build an OS that delivers a better user experience than the iOS. But I don’t mean adding features to the hardware and software that Apple lacks. It’s about the total widget, and building gear that customers will love, feel empowered by, and, for the most part, just work. That’s a tall order, and other companies haven’t been up to the task.
As for Apple, it’s the early days of the Tim Cook era. So far, Apple is firing on all cylinders, but they could become complacent, particularly if the competition remains inferior. Complacency could raise the possibility of another company, whether a startup or one of the traditional tech powerhouses, delivering gear that truly puts the iPad and the iPhone to shame.
However, being pronounced an iPad killer by the media amounts to nothing more than using a tired cliché. There’s no muscle behind that claim. There might be some day, but not yet.