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Wednesday March 2, 2011 7:00 am

How Google can learn from the iPad 2

Apple's March 2 event is all but guaranteed to bring us the iPad 2, most likely with dual cameras and a revamped OS. It arrives two months after CES 2011, to a landscape littered with tablets from scores of manufacturers, most of them with one thing in common: they are running Google's Android OS. But only a handful of them run Android 3.0 (Honeycomb), the first Android tablet OS. Can tablets like the Motorola Xoom—the first Honeycomb device—take on the iPad?

If the past is any indicator, it doesn't look good. This has less to do with quality of product, however, and more to do with the manner in which the product is brought to the public.

The clear advantage Apple has over just about every competitor—except perhaps for RIM—is that it relies on no external manufacturers for its products. To clarify: of course Apple needs to farm out production of the components that make up its devices to OEMs, but when you see a new iPad, it is from Apple, running an Apple OS, for sale at the Apple store. The closest Apple comes to working with other companies is its partnerships with Verizon and AT&T for the iPhone and iPad. For the most part, however, Apple is its own, self-controlling entity. With no company—other than the carriers and OEMs— with which to coordinate, Apple can create a realistic product release timeline and stick to it.


It seems March has become iPad month—it joins June's iPhone announcements and September's iPod launches as predictable, annual product release events. Few companies are this consistent and still manage to put out product that people really want.

Google, meanwhile, created Android to be open to all manufacturers. Motorola just released the Xoom, and while Honeycomb looks great on it, the product was just not quite ready at launch. Flash support was not enabled, and the apps on the market were few in number and often weak in quality. Soon, Samsung will release a Honeycomb tablet, with a parade of tech manufacturers to follow. With so many companies hoping to entice consumers with the same OS, what's a manufacturer to do? Quite simply, they make customized versions of Google's perfectly functioning OS. But when updates are pushed out down the road, many of these custom versions don't work properly. How could they? Everyone is doing something a little bit different and the updates Google pushes out do not incorporate the custom tweaks made to previous versions.

Apple's iOS is only available on Apple-manufactured products. There's no (legally) customized version out there. Apple realizes that part of the allure of the iOS device is its "look"—not just the sleek physical design, but the clean on-screen graphics. Honeycomb has a similarly clean design, but you aren't likely to see it on too many devices. Companies will try to alter it to differentiate their product, but the net result is a large field of similar—but not ideally functioning—devices.

Apple's iOS isn't "open" like Android, but this is how Apple polices and protects its product line. There can be only one iPhone or iPad. Google would be wise to strike up a similar deal with a single manufacturer and call it a day. By allowing a plethora of companies, large and small, access to Android, Google's quality OS gets diluted, and the Android ecosystem becomes confusing to the consumer. Some Android tablets come with the Android Market loaded, for instance, while some don't have access and rely on second-rate "app stores" with lower-quality apps…but they all still say "Android tablet" somewhere on the box.

The Xoom is a fine example of Android's potential. Imagine how much more excited consumers would be about the Xoom if it were, indeed, the only Honeycomb tablet, period. Every year, you could look forward to a new Xoom. With the field simplified, Google and Motorola could easily work together to come up with a consistent product cycle. It sometimes seems that Google feels that having an "open" platform is better than having a quality user experience—unfortunately, the company's ideals are falling short of customers' expectations.

If we learned anything from the Zune, it's that you can't wait too long to get in the game against Apple. The Zune HD and Zune Marketplace were fantastic products…but a few years too late. iPods were already dominating the portable music market.

With the second iPad just around the corner, it seems like the window of opportunity for a realistic Apple competitor is closing yet again. What the tech world needs is not a plethora of mediocre contenders, but one, strong contender using a solid OS. The Xoom could be just that, but before it can even truly compete with the iPad, it has to compete with other Android tablets. That's quite an uphill battle.

Meanwhile, at least one company (besides Apple) has figured this out. While the rest of the tech world is obsessing over new Android tablets, don't be surprised if RIM's Blackberry PlayBook steals the show later this year. Like Apple products, RIM's products operate on their own OS, and the hands-on time I had with the PlayBook at CES showed an intuitive OS every bit as easy to use as an Android tablet. RIM, however, is not encumbered by the collaborative process that all manufacturers working with Google must deal with currently. Like Apple, RIM's process is more streamlined. (Though this makes the absence of the PlayBook, which has been shown off in various degrees of beta since last year, all the more puzzling.)

Someday, Apple will have a true competitor in the portable and mobile device market. Like most viable contenders, the company that emerges to truly take on Apple will start off by emulating Apple's successful practices, then differentiate itself in an attractive way. To paraphrase Pablo Picasso: Good companies borrow, great companies steal.

We seem to have a bunch of good companies right now, like Google and Motorola, but when are they going to get their acts together and truly create a great product that strikes fear in Apple's heart? The solid foundation that's needed (Honeycomb) is already in place. Now Google must abandon the ball and chain of an open platform and the diluted product field it creates, and instead control and curate a singular product line around a non-customized OS. Microsoft figured this out with the Zune, but it did so way too late. It's not yet too late with tablets, but it's getting there.

This article, written by Tim Gideon, originally appeared on PCMag.com and is republished on Gear Live with the permission of Ziff Davis, Inc..

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