Google: Android isn’t designed for tablets… yet

Google clearly didn’t have tablets in mind when it designed the Android operating system. Way back in 2007, tablets were generally expensive computers running Windows software which often had a full keyboard, a screen on a swivel, and active digitizer and stylus doohickeys for input. Android, on the other hand, was aimed at smartphones.

Flash forward a few years and it seems like every day there’s a story about a new company coming out with an Android tablet. That makes sense, because let’s face it, the iPad is probably the most popular tablet computer ever, and it’s basically running an operating system designed for a smartphone. There’s not much difference between the versions of iOS running on the iPad and the iPhone. Since pretty much anyone can license Android for free and use it how they see fit, it’s not surprising that companies looking to pump out iPad rivals are going with Android.

The problem is that Google hasn’t officially given these devices its blessing yet — and Google mobile director Hugo Barra tells Tech Radar that the company probably won’t until a future version of Android that’s optimized for tablets is available. In other words, that shiny new Android 2.2 Froyo operating system Google launched earlier this year? You know, the one that tablet makers are scrambling to install on their mobile devices? It’s not what Google had in mind for tablets.

While the basic Google Android operating system is open source and free for anyone to use, Google holds tighter reigns on some of the apps that run on top of Android, including its Gmail, Google Calendar, and Android Market apps. So far, Google hasn’t officially given the go ahead for any hardware maker to install the Android Market app on a device that doesn’t meet the minimum requirements — which basically means you need to have a device with an accelerometer, WiFi, and phone capabilities. That’s why the Samsung Galaxy Tab and Dell Streak both have Android Market access and the Archos 101 and Augen GenTouch78 don’t. The former have 3G modems and the ability to make phone calls. The latter don’t.

The good news is that Barra says future versions of Android will support the tablet form factor. But right now, he says that the problem with installing the Android Market is that some of the 80,000 apps available for download simply won’t run properly on tablets.

Honestly, it seems like there should be a relatively easy fix that simply requires an updated Market app rather than a brand new operating system. Just segregate apps based on their hardware requirements. Apple does this by separating out the iPad apps from the iPhone/iPod touch apps in the iTunes App Store.

But Google appears to be taking a different approach.

I get the feeling that Google never really wanted Android tablets to exist in the first place and is just now playing catch up in response to the obvious demand. The company has another mobile operating system in the works called Google Chrome OS, which is basically an OS built around a web browser. Instead of downloaded apps, it will run web apps, although we expect there to be some offline caching capabilities which should let you do things like read eBooks or watch videos even when an internet connection isn’t handy.

Since Google is first and foremost a company that makes its revenue from web-based advertising and web-based software, it’s no surprise that Google’s vision for the future is cloud-based apps instead of downloads. Google doesn’t offer as many desktop apps as it used to, instead focusing on the cloud.

If Chrome OS were ready to go earlier this year, I suspect Google still wouldn’t be thinking about Android for tablets — unless Chrome OS turned out to be a big flop with users clamoring for downloadable apps. Don’t forget, when Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone, it didn’t have native apps either. He insisted that the development platform for the iPhone was the web, and the phone was designed primarily to run web apps. Today, there are over 250,000 native apps available in the App Store because, let’s face it, web apps just aren’t always going to do the job.

Anyway, long story short — I’d be shocked at this point if Google didn’t respond to the huge demand for Android tablets by finally pushing a tablet friendly version of the operating system by the end of the year. But I don’t really think Google is going to be happy about it… and pushing a version of Android that isn’t exclusively for phones could be all it takes for Chrome OS to be dead on arrival. After all, who needs a web-browser based operating system when you’ve already got an always-on, light weight mobile OS that includes its own Webkit-based browser and the ability to run tens of thousands of third party native apps?

  • Anonymous

    Google was way behind the power curve when the iPad was launched and every Chinese hardware maker was able to pump out a sub-$300 tablet. Had they anticipated, or been in a position to react, they probably could have been ready with Chrome OS when all of these third-party tablets were launched. Then this wouldn’t be an issue. Instead, they are still fiddling with Chrome, but Android is a perfectly serviceable operating system.

    Now they’re in a tough position. They have invested far too much time and money into Chrome OS to just abandon it. It never occurred to them that all they should have been doing was creating a tablet/netbook variant of Android and having it ready earlier this year. I think you’re right… if they create a tablet-friendly version of Android, it may well be the nail in the coffin for Chrome OS.

  • aftermath

    File this one under “Duh.”

    Android is a bad “tablet” operating system. It’s true, and I respect Google for coming out and saying this. (Could you imagine if Apple came out and admitted that iOS is bad on “tablets” too or that the iPad was just a big iPhone?) Actually, it feels like Google might be trying to distance itself from the “tablet” craze. Does it sense that the wheels are coming off? Might Google see what others see: everybody “wants” one but nobody really wants one, that there’s not a “tablet” market, just people buying iPads, that’s it has nothing to do with computing or technology and everything to do with brands.

    If you remove the verbal gymnastics from Barra’s statement, it’s more telling:

    “Android is an open platform…but [Android Market is] not going to be available on devices…[which] will be unit specific…to ensure our users have right experience.”

    Obviously, Google has some very special definitions of “platform” and “open”, just like they had a very special definition of “the Internet” when they talked about net-neutrality with Verizon (and perhaps a special definition of “evil” as well). I accept that Andoird Market is not part of the Android platform, but the nomenclature sure lends itself to confusion. It’s tough to believe that was an accident. This issue of “is Google Android open” is something that people within the open source community have been arguing over pretty fiercely lately (that’s what open source enthusiasts who don’t develop software do, argue). One of the key questions when examining the “openness” of a platform is to identify who is benefiting. A piece of software like Mozilla Firefox is something that almost anybody can have, use, and improve. It can benefit almost anybody with a computer, and its emergence led to the improvement of web standards and compliance. Android benefits Google and a few hardware vendors. That’s about it. Moreover, Android is “free” like some software is “free” if you only want a subset of the known, available features, like shareware. In Linux, nobody ever tells you “You can’t install that program on your computer because I do not approve of the user experience that you will have.” They will warn you “It’s going to suck, but you can do it anyway,” but you get to be the one who decides how much misery and frustration you’re willing to put up with. I hope Google doesn’t plan to take away my car because it doesn’t accelerate fast enough, remove the tomatoes from my refrigerator because they’re not red enough, de-activate my gmail account because I’m not sending enough email, or ban me from Youtube because I’m watching too many videos.

    Although I think its healthy to be skeptical of a large company like Google, it’s hard not to take this statement at face value in the given context: The poor user experience that Google wants to save us from is the Android Tablet. Barra even goes to far as to point out that Android is “already running on tablets” and then quickly backtracks to “not optimised for use on tablets.” There is actually a legitimate psychological force at work here in terms of the marketing too. The iPhone and iPad are brand-driven purchases. The brand is Apple. It’s like somebody who loves McDonald’s and orders their new “roasted eggplant sandwich”. They’re probably going to love it because it’s from McDonald’s. In contrast, Android is just an ingredient. Suppose you enjoy the dish “roasted eggplant on pasta”. That’s like Android on a smartphone. Now, you THINK you like roasted eggplant, but that doesn’t mean that you’ll love a “roasted eggplant sandwich”. Maybe you’ll discover that you don’t really like roasted eggplant as much as you thought, just don’t like roasted eggplant sandwiches, or only like roasted eggplant in pasta. This is a lot different that the McDonald’s faithful ordering a roasted eggplant sandwich, and maybe they’re enthusiasm and all of the commercials were the only reason you thought you wanted a roasted eggplant sandwich in the first place.

    • tl;dr

      tl;dr

    • Evidence-Based Loafing

      People buy Apple products because they’re better than the other stuff on the market. That’s why people applaud when Steve Jobs announces some new Apple thing, not because they’re hypnotized by his “showmanship.”

      Who cares if it has an apple on it or an eggplant? Apple can afford to de-emphasize its brand; on some of its products you’d be hard pressed to even locate the company’s logo.

      Few of Apple’s competitors have mastered usability, documentation, customer support, developer support, retail convenience, security or service. I’m on my seventh Mac not because I “love Apple” but because I want to get work done instead of fighting with my computer.

      Reader “clkeagle” is exactly on the money as to how Google has walked into a corner with Android, which is the real point of this article. If Chrome OS is too handicapped by design, and Android tablets remain shut out of needed services, Google will have forfeited tremendous opportunities.

      • Anonymous

        As far as Apple products goes, you’re both right. Some people buy it because they like the quality and ease of use. But there are also those who will never accept that any Apple product could be less than perfect and will get Apple products regardless if there is a better alternative.

        Most people are reasonable and have logical reasons for liking Apple but there is no denying there are also extremists.

        I agree Android is in a pickle between Android and Chrome OS, it’s a wait and see what they’ll do with Android 3.0 and whether cloud computing is really marketable.

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  • John Q. Public

    Good analysis, I completely agree. Google ought to be listening to customers and allowing access to Google apps on tablets. My Archos 5IT can run those apps and run them well proving Google’s argument wrong. They may not have expected what’s happening with Android but ought to go with the flow instead of forcing Chrome on users who don’t want it. A computer that only runs a browser? Bah, what do you do when you have no internet connection?!? 3G may be available but it’s far from affordable so don’t give me that argument. Chrome is dead, long live Android!

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  • http://home.comcast.net/~tomleem/ BigGoofyGuy

    I have one of the first Augen Gentouch 78 to come out and it has the Android Market on it. I am able to download apps while using it. At first it would not download since it was not for ‘this phone’ but I changed the settings. I really like Android on it. Since the tablet does not have a keyboard, having an OS that one can use touch or a stylus with is good; IMO. Android might have been for smart phones but it does seem to work as a tablet pc os. I like my Android powered Gentouch 78. :)

  • http://ARMdevices.net/ Charbax

    Google wants telecom companies to profit. Tablets means danger for those telecom companie’s profits.Take iPad for example, that hugely over-priced Apple tablet. 90% of iPad sales are WiFi only. And the 10% remaining sold with 3G option inside, none of these are sold with very profitable 2-year contracts. In fact, Apple forced a per-month 3G data model where the user can actually choose not to pay for the cellular network a certain month that the user doesn’t think it is needed.Once you start making Android tablets, the price is not $500 per tablet like with Apple, the price is not $500 per Android device, as with HTC/Motorola/Samsung/SE/LG/Acer Android phones, the price can suddenly be $100 per Android device.Officially supporting non-3G tablets, non-GPS/compass Tablets, would for Google mean that there would be a shift and consumers would start buying more Android devices without 3G and demand them also without GPS/compass. Just like the iPod Touch is actually selling more devices each day at the moment than the iPhone.Does that mean Google is in bed with telecom carriers? To some extent I think yes. But I also think they are being friendly with telecoms because they think they need to be friends with them as telecoms being happy with Google can push Android forward to number 1 mobile OS in the world in front of Symbian. Android is already number 2 in front of Blackberry and iOS.In terms of Android being ready for Tablets. It is as ready for Tablets as iOS is ready for iPod Touch and iPad. Same thing. The question is more about is Google ready for cheap tablets. Hopefully Google will be bold and announce Android 3.0 as the cheap Tablet/e-reader/set-top-box/laptop OS.

  • IceBeam

    I’m sure Google want to push their own crappy Chrome OS – which is why they are trying to sabotage these padds by denying them access.
    That an app looks a bit silly doesn’t mean it can’t run.
    Hell if that was a criteria most of Windows 7 should be removed since the Microsofts stuff doesn’t adjust to resolution and you just have these tiny little windows in the middle of the screen.
    Stop it Google – I don’t want Chrome OS – ever – its TOO MUCH CLOUD.
    Give me a tablet (and call it GPadd with two D’s) with Android – then we’ll talk.

  • http://www.facebook.com/skooter500 Bryan Duggan

    FYI The android marketplace isnt event available on phones – unless you are in one of the 13 countries Google supports:

    http://market.android.com/support/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=143779

    This doesnt include Google’s European HQ country – Ireland! Google, get your act together and sort this out. You are pissing people off

    • IceBeam

      That’s a lie. Google Market Place is available all over, BUT you can’t BUY apps unless you are in one of their approved countries (Unless you buy it via other means than the market, which people are starting to do since Google are so slow to get anything done)

  • AzN1337c0d3r

    Could it possibly be that Google wants ChromeOS to be the tablet OS?

  • shonangreg

    I think google needs to let the ChromeOS division and the android division both work somewhat autonomously without one telling the other “This is our turf; don’t tread on me.” Android has an obvious path to usefulness, acceptance, and popularity. ChromeOS, on the other hand, remains untested. If ChromeOS can carve out a niche for itself regardless of what android is doing, then more power to it/them. Maybe there will be a sub-category of tablets that are used by captured audiences, in museums, schools, or offices, that does not need the full flexibility of android. BUT NO ONE IS BUILDING THOSE DEVICES NOW! So, google, nurse your ChromeOS vision. Work on “wowwing” us in the future with some unimagined device. But, in the meantime, Let. Android. Be. Free! And tweak it to work on tablets. Please. They are here now. I want a cross between my desktop and my android phone.Chrome, now? Mehhh……

  • Anonymous

    OK that really does make a lot of sense when you think about it.

    http://www.real-anonymity.es.tc

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  • Anonymous

    i’m happy. this leaves opportunity for meego tablets (that could cost less, because of no phone part).

  • Anonymous