Google keeps failing to understand tablets

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What is a tablet? What is a tablet supposed to be and do? Nine years ago, these questions were foremost in debates about new technology, as Apple was preparing to introduce its first iPad and rival companies were rushing to beat it to the punch. CES 2010 gave us one answer in the form of the 8.9-inch HP Slate, a Windows 7 PC running on an Intel Atom processor. A few weeks later, Apple’s iPad made its debut with a 9.7-inch screen and mobile chips and software. And then a year after that, Google released a version of Android called Honeycomb that was tailored specifically for tablets.

No one understood tablets back then; everyone was guessing. Apple originally envisioned the iPad as the glossy magazine equivalent of Amazon’s Kindle. The iPad would be more interactive, it would have apps, but a major part of its appeal was supposed to come from “digital magazines” and comic books created for the platform. Publishers quickly found that idea too costly to sustain, and Apple discovered people were using the iPad for many other purposes as well. The company’s initial reluctance to offer a stylus or a keyboard has since turned into multiple generations of keyboard covers and Apple Pencils. Apple’s iPad development has been characterized by learning, adapting, and evolving.

What has Google done in that time? Well, the Mountain View company has taken over the smartphone world with Android, so there’s that. But translating that operating system (OS) to tablets has been a tragic, chronic failure for Google. The Motorola Xoom and Xyboard, the Asus Eee Pad Transformer, the 13-inch Toshiba Excite, and a litany of others from Acer, Dell, Lenovo, and Google have shown promise only to ultimately disappoint. Android on tablets has only ever been somewhat appealing on a couple of 7-inch devices — the Google Nexus 7 and the Samsung Galaxy Tab — and on task-specific tablets like Amazon’s Fire HD and Nvidia’s Shield Tablet, both of which are more about the content than the OS.

The reason for Android’s failure as a tablet OS should be obvious. Android is made for smartphones. Its system requirements are aligned with a smartphone’s capabilities, its app library is made to fit a smartphone’s screen, and all of its core usability features are built for a smartphone’s vertical orientation. Granted, phone displays have kept growing over the past decade, but they’re likely to find their ceiling right around the point where they reach the Nexus 7 and Galaxy Tab’s dimensions. Android is not infinitely expandable.

Putting Android on a 10-inch (or larger) tablet makes as much sense as trying to find clothes for Yao Ming in a regular store. Sure, you might dig up some scarves, ties, and belts that are a fit, but most things will be a total mismatch. Google got that message after its series of embarrassing flops. But instead of going to a tailor, the company just started looking in the clown costume aisle with its Chrome OS, as exhibited by the distinctly doofy Pixel Slate.

Android is an operating system designed for phones, Chrome OS is an operating system designed for laptops, and the mix of Android apps and Chrome software that Google serves on the Pixel Slate is a buggy mess. It’s easy to fall into the trap of looking at a tablet’s display size and say, “It’s like a laptop, so put laptop software on it,” or to consider its touchscreen and declare, “It’s just an enlarged phone.” Easy and wrong.

Tablets, despite being proximate to both phones and laptops, are unique. To have a good tablet experience, you need an OS that is made specifically for that task. It must offer an intuitive touchscreen interface, like a phone, but it should also make full use of its greater screen real estate and higher spec ceiling. Apple’s iPad is, of course, the role model for how this is done. Apple has developed custom X editions of its iPhone chips for use in the iPad, taking advantage of the larger battery and better cooling of the tablet. The company has also dedicated major iOS releases to improving iPad functionality, even while the iPhone remains its most important product. That, together with a historic willingness among app developers to create iPad-specific apps, generates a distinct iPad-only user experience.

So long as Google keeps trying to cram its software for other platforms onto a tablet, it will continue to suffer the ignominy of failure. Android Wear on smartwatches, now renamed Wear OS, has been another instructive example of what should be a very simple concept: if you want to build the best possible version of any gadget, the software for it has to be designed for it. Someone at Google really ought to consult Microsoft’s long, abortive history of trying to slim Windows down just enough to make it fit onto mobile devices. (The Surface Pro 2-in-1s of today are good, but they’re still more laptop than tablet.) There’s also Intel’s spectacularly profligate run of pseudo-mobile chips that were just trimmed-down laptop and desktop processors.

The future of technology will be defined by more software specialization, not less. Even today, the best fitness trackers have featherlight software built specifically for the efficient processing of biometric data. The best cameras — something Google knows a lot about — are defined by highly customized, multilayered exploitation of the basic hardware.

Good software, in spite of its name, is incredibly hard to do. That’s what makes it tempting for pragmatic companies to try and take shortcuts, as every PC manufacturer shipping a copy of Windows or every phone maker relying on Android tends to do. But Google isn’t just another company, and its competition, Apple’s iPad, isn’t just another formulaic slab of transistors and pixels. To take on the iPad, Google needs to give up its Dr. Frankenstein act and just take the time to craft a tablet from fresh parts.

The truth is that just about anyone in tech can build a good tablet, but very few have yet been able to build a good tablet experience.