I’ve been tinkering with a Motorola XOOM for the past week or so, and while I like the build quality, speedy processor, and excellent screen, I find that 9 times out of 10 I’d rather just use my smartphone for mobile computing tasks. That’s partly because my phone is always with me, but it’s also because there just aren’t that many apps optimized for Android tablets yet.

Google Android 3.0 certainly works better on tablets than Android 2.2. The built-in apps, including the web browser, Gmail client, and Android Market make excellent use of the XOOM’s high resolution display and large screen. I’m not in love with the on-screen keyboard, but it’s miles ahead of what you get if you just blow up the Android 2.2 keyboard to fit on a larger device.

But while there are well over 100,000 apps available for Android, very few are actually designed to run on Android 3.0 tablets.

For some apps, this really doesn’t matter. Games like Angry Birds or Robo Defense look great on a big screen. But many apps that are designed for a 4 inch phone just look ridiculous on a big screen.

For instance, I decided to take the VEVO music video app for Android for a spin on the XOOM today. VEVO lets you stream 25,000 music videos from over 7,500 artists for free. The video quality looks reasonably good on a smartphone, but even when you tap the HQ button, videos look awful on an Android tablet with a high resolution display.

But the bigger problem is that the user interface has clearly been designed for a small screen. When you browse the video selection, you get a list of tiny thumbnail icons and text. On a phone, you’d have to scroll a few times to get to the bottom of the top 12 list, but on the XOOM, there’s extra space at the bottom of the screen.

The VEVO app also only opens in portrait mode and only plays videos in landscape mode.

I don’t mean to single out VEVO here. The New York Times app looks awful on the XOOM too. You get too much text and tiny photos. At least you have some measure of control over the font size.

The official WordPress app also makes poor use of the screen real estate on tablets, again presenting you with a list view that looks great on a phone, but which doesn’t make much sense on a tablet.

Some third party developers are doing things right. The CNN app for Android is optimized for high resolution screens and offers a compelling new way to navigate through online videos. The Pulse News Reader likewise provides an innovative way to view news (although the app isn’t exclusive to Android… the Android version looks nearly identical to the Pulse app for the Apple iPad).

Amazon recently launched a new Kindle eBook app for Android 3.0 Honeycomb which has a much-improved Kindle Store for finding and purchasing eBooks — although the app still really needs a two-pane reading mode for landscape tablets.

I recently found a nifty app for reading, submitting, and commenting on Reddit articles called Reddita which makes Reddit more fun to use on a tablet than on a desktop computer.

Unfortunately these well designed tablet apps are still the exception rather than the rule.

There are tens of thousands of iPad apps, but only dozens of apps for Android tablets.

There’s certainly a chicken and egg problem going on here. Until more Android tablets are in the hands of users, developers may not want to spend a lot of time and energy creating apps that are optimized for Android tablets.

On the other hand, without more high quality third party apps, Android tablets are kind of glorified phones with big screens and better web browsers. That might be exactly what you’re looking for, but are you willing to pay $450 or more for it?

Some companies, such as Barnes & Noble are skirting around the issue by creating their own app stores. Sure there are only about 125 apps currently available for the NOOK Color, but at least they’re all confirmed to play well with the 7 inch tablet. Hopefully as more Android tablets hit the streets, we’ll start to see more tablet apps so that third party stores start to look less necessary.

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13 replies on “Android tablets would be a lot more useful if there were more Android tablet apps”

  1. OK… I noticed that you qualified your entire article by including “useful” in your title, but I’m assuming that people buy Android devices explicitly to be used (because they are not brand-driven purchases like Apple devices are). Thus, you’re over-constraining your argument.

    At the risk of being overly obvious: How are these “tablets” if there aren’t enough tablet “apps”?

    What is this “tablet” thing to which you’re all referring? Is it just the hardware, in which case why the complaint about “apps”? Is it hardware and “apps”, in which case why are we already calling them “tablets” if there aren’t enough “tablet apps”. At every turn this makes less and less sense, and the extent to which it’s totally confused is more and more obvious. These aren’t tablets. Tablets are well defined, very useful, very effective, and have been around for over a decade. You’re calling cats “dogs” because of the similarities, but you’re ignoring the differences and then complaining about them. You’re complaining about the usefulness of a touchscreen slate, which died when the PDA died and got resurrected with Apple-branded iPad purchase fever. These are dumpy devices, and a touchscreen only slate makes about as much sense as peeing your pants to keep warm. Go ahead and do that, but complaining that it makes your pants all went and then makes you even colder after a while seems a bit excessive. If you look at it from a pure industrial design standpoint as informed by an appreciation for the history of computing and its future, a touchscreen-only slate solves almost no outstanding computing problem for the user, but it does reintroduce many of them while creating many more. Moreover, these devices are beneficial for the manufacturers, which is why they’re all building them and hoping that we will like them, or at least buy them. However, none of that makes them any good, and it certainly doesn’t make them tablets.

    I have a pretty good vision of what the perfect touch screen slate would be, but at the end of day, it’s nothing more than the skinniest kid at fat camp.

    1. I would like to respectfully disagree with several of your points here. For me, the key has been finding the “holy grail” of portable computing devices that I can carry in my purse. I started out with Windows Mobile PDA’s, and those were useful but small. I think smartphones really replaced them, more than they “died out”.

      The Eee PC 701 was a revolution, and I absolutely loved it. But poor battery life and the lack of “always on” internet connectivity led me to keep looking. I’ve owned several “affordable ultraportable” machines over the past few years, and each one had their benefits and drawbacks.

      Most had physical keyboards of some kind, but the more you shrink down a keyboard the less useful it becomes. I’ve found that a mobile computing device is more useful for content consumption than creation, though I can pound out an email on a touchscreen keyboard pretty easily, provided the screen is big enough.

      Two of the machines I’ve owned were convertibles, which is what you refer to as “tablets”. They had both touchscreens and keyboards. They were useful machines, but not for my specific needs. The reality is that few desktop applications are designed for touch input, so I ended up using the keyboard most of the time.

      And even when I invested in a USB modem, then subsequently a mobile hotspot device, internet connectivity was always an issue. Even if I put a netbook or ultraportable to sleep, and it resumed quickly, getting online was not “instant” like it is on a 3G tablet.

      “But that’s what a smartphone is for. Why spend money on a giant smartphone, since that’s all today’s tablets really are?” That’s what I thought at first, too. And my first slate purchase, the Samsung Galaxy Tab, really WAS like a giant smartphone. It ran mostly apps designed for phones — but the usefulness of a larger screen for reading web content or watching videos was incomparable to a smartphone screen.

      And yes, I now own an iPad. No, it was not due to “Apple-branded purchase fever”. Not EVERY person who buys an Apple product does so because of slick advertising or as a status symbol (though I will grant that I may be in the minority). For me, it’s about convenience. I carry the iPad in my purse, as I did with nearly every netbook and ultraportable I have ever owned. But it is thinner, lighter, has longer battery life, and is always connected to the internet.

      And the touch interface DOES solve an outstanding computer problem for me: I can use it while standing up. In fact, it’s thin enough and lightweight enough that I can use it in almost any position. That’s tricky to do with a laptop, netbook, or any other ultraportable I’ve tried. And as you can tell, I’ve tried many.

      Getting back to what Brad discusses in this article, I think you may have misread his intent. It’s not a reflection on the form factor, but a reflection on the Android Honeycomb platform. Lack of full-screen applications is a real concern right now. But it was a concern for the iPad at launch, too. Apple designed a few awesome tablet-specific apps for it, but their app store was full of phone apps that didn’t scale well. This isn’t the case anymore, and I doubt it will be the case for Android a year from now.

      But application development for iPad was fueled largely by the “Apple-branded iPad purchase fever” you mentioned, so for Android, it remains a chicken-and-egg scenario that Brad described above. Until more Android Honeycomb devices are in the hands of users, few developers are going to take interest. And until more useful apps are available for the platform, few users are going to buy the devices.

      In summary, don’t buy a touchscreen slate if you find it “dumpy”, but don’t cast judgment on those of us who do like the form factor and want to see developers create useful applications for it. 😉

  2. This is why I’m taking a wait and see attitude. I’m reminded of an old
    adage: “You can tell the pioneers by the arrows on their backs”.

    I’ve played this game before with other gadget platforms over the decades, and spent a small fortune on devices with too many compromises that couldn’t do anything due to the dearth of apps,
    had too short a battery life, and didn’t have any replacement batteries available a year after the product’s introduction.

    The extremely short product life cycle nowadays, however, rewards those who can wait, as devices are getting better
    at an ever faster clip. I mean, in other gadget-crazed countries such
    as Japan, people were upgrading their cell phones as often as once
    a year–just as in new cars, they took some substantial losses in
    depreciation with arguably little benefit.

    One way to play this game is to get a refurbished or used iPad 1,
    which I am thinking about, just to get myself familiar with it (I
    have not signed on to the whole iPod/iPhone/i… bandwagon).
    Apple did me a great favor by keeping the screen resolution the
    same between gen 1 and gen 2.

    And without any compelling multitasking apps so far, I won’t miss
    the 2nd core absent from the gen 1 product.

    Of course, all these tablets’ software ecosystems pale in comparison
    to the desktop Windows juggernaut, and I’m betting that there will
    emerge soon enough a Windows slate (whether on ARM or x86)
    that will be weight and battery life competitive with iPad and
    Android.

    (I had a couple of 680×0 Macs, and I was constantly frustrated by
    what I call the “one of each” phenomenon in software vs. Windows.
    You could get one of each genre of software for the Mac, but if that
    software didn’t suit, you were sorry out of luck. And you couldn’t
    run x86 software on the Mac at the time.)

    Indeed, just as with netbooks, it might be possible to
    install Windows for ARM on existing or future Android tablets.
    In netbooks’ early days, 70% of netbooks ran Linux, but soon enough,
    end users installed Windows over the factory-installed Linux.

  3. Agreed I’ve got the Xoom right now too, Apps are the issue!

    But you know what’s really interesting about the Xoom in China? They are launching it with an App Store with nearly 1000 China specific apps. Why couldn’t the US do that? The Xoom might actually stand a chance over here. But the US version is an over priced fail if you ask me!

  4. Am I willing to pay $450 more for a 3.0 android tablet?
    The answer is no, and I don’t have to. I’ve been using a variety of sub $300 7″ and 10″ Android running 2.1 and 2.2 and have been quite happy with them as is.

    I predominantly use tablets for reading eBooks, manga, comics, RSS feeds and viewing videos. As such I predominantly use the Aldiko, Perfect Viewer, FB Reader, The Comixology app, Google Books, Google Reader, the stock video player, and the stock browser. In each case they scale fine. My only annoyance is that aldiko could use better font antialiasing. I actually welcome big menus and controls that fit well with my fat fingers.

    The constant search of an “iPad killer” has led to a vicious cycle of ever more expensive and heavy “SUV” tablets. Tablets are easily the best solution for many applications, particularly content consumption, flexible adjunct displays/interfaces, and light browsing. These are simple and mundane applications best served by cheap and plentiful comodified tablets. Cheap, ubiquitous and simple, not ungainly “laptop replacement” monstrosities. Think Prius rather than Lincoln Navigator.

    1. shanzhai tablets FTW!

      Yeah I totally agree… especially right now while there are very very few specialized applications that require any expensive or hardware peformancej to really make them work well.

  5. I think this is a very astute observation, and matches my own experience. I was an early adopter of the Galaxy Tab, since I already have an iPhone, and my favorite soap box is about being multi-platform. But while running Android 2.2 on a 7″ screen isn’t quite as absurd as running it on a 10″ or larger screen, it had its drawbacks. So I anxiously awaited Android 3.0 and the “next generation” of Android tablets.

    When the Xoom came out, I spent a solid length of time playing with one. I WANTED to like it. But there just weren’t many decent apps for it, and the phone apps didn’t scale well. Web browsing was good, but still limited, since this isn’t a full desktop operating system. I was left thoroughly underwhelmed.

    So I bought an iPad 2, which I love. To be fair, I had the same gripes about the iPad when it first came out as I have about the current crop of Android tablets. There were only a handful of tablet-specific apps, and scaled-up iPhone/iPod Touch apps weren’t all that pretty. But that’s not the case today.

    It may be unfair, but Apple was first to market, so they got an advantage. But Android has always been a step behind iOS, so the landscape may look very different a year from now. For every Apple fanboy, there are an equal number of folks who will avoid Apple like the plague, so I think Google and their OEM partners stand a fair shot.

    I’m also interested in what RIM and HP will continue cooking up over the next few years, since they’re playing by Apple’s rule-book. So far, Apple seems to be making the hardware/software/ecosystem trifecta work well for them. And Microsoft could take us all by surprise with Windows 8, too.

    In the meantime, at least I can argue that I’m still multi-platform. My favorite thing about the Galaxy Tab was Google Nav, not to mention media streaming capabilities, so it’s now doing full-time duty as my in-car infotainment system. =)

      1. Haha, I won’t hold my breath for that, but I’m glad you found it useful!

        1. I enjoy following the netbook/tablet/ultraportable scene in general. I still think Asus really started all of this by proving with the original Eee PC 701 (which I owned) that a small, relatively low-powered device with limited storage space and running custom software could still allow us to do most of our daily computing tasks. It’s been a fun ride so far, and I don’t think anyone can predict what will come next!

          And that charger is great! =D

          1. I totally agree. I have a tougher time explaining to people what exactly it is we cover at Liliputing these days, because the market has morphed since the 701 hit the market, but the overarching theme is still “affordable ultraportables.”

            Devices that would have run $1000 or more a few years ago are far cheaper (and more common) today thanks to the netbook revolution which helped consumers realize they didn’t need bleeding edge gaming machines to perform basic computing tasks.

            Of course, the definition of affordable has gone up and down a bit… as has ultraportable. It’s tough to compare an $829 Apple iPad with 64GB of storage and 3G with a $279 HP Mini 210 netbook, or an 11.6 inch AMD Fusion powered notebook with a Motorola XOOM. But I still see them all as owing a lot to the cheap netbook ethos.

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