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?