Ice Cream Dreams [Opinion]

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A few days before Christmas in 2010 Motorola released this teaser video. It was a little cheesy, but I was excited about the prospect of a tablet that would finally best the iPad. The Samsung Galaxy Tab had been released, but I never thought of it as a viable tablet option. It was too thick and at the end of the day it ran Android 2.2, a decent OS, but not a tablet OS. Rumors about Google’s upcoming tablet OS has sparked my interest. I had never really been interested in a tablet, but I figured if there was going to be a tablet for me it would be from Google. 

Before anyone had seen Honeycomb this video “leaked” out, showing off Android 3.0. I was so ecstatic that I made the “Android 3.0” screen my wallpaper. I was convinced that Google was going to finally deliver a tablet experience that would outdo iOS on every level. The iPad had been out for several months at this point, so I figured Google and Motorola would be able to make a device that at least matched the iPad in specs but bested it in the OS.

Then, during CES, Verizon gave a presentation of Honeycomb. I can remember watching the video and trying to imagine having this thing in my hand. I had a couple issues (why can’t I scroll through the apps when I press the multitask button?), but I was confident that these things would be worked out. I can remember watching hands on videos as a few journalists eventually began to be allowed to touch the Xoom before release. Eventually, in late February, the Xoom was released on Verzion for $600 on a two year contract ($800 contract-free). Like many others, I was a little shocked at the price (especially the off-contract price), but I decided to hold my judgement until I could make my way into a Verizon store to actually play with the device.

I walked into the store with my friend and marched right over to the Xoom. I turned on the screen and saw a lot of lag as I slid the lock to the end of the unlock ring. I assumed it was a small bug and moved on. As I played around with the tablet it began to dawn on me that I was agreeing with many of the reviews I had read: the Xoom was good, but it could have been so much better. It wasn’t just that it was heavy or that the power button was placed in an odd location, it was the software. Android 3.0 was miles ahead of the Froyo that the Galaxy Tab was sporting, but it still felt half baked (or as Google likes to put it, beta).

As time has passed we’ve seen a plethora of Honeycomb devices that have caught my eye from the ASUS Transformer to the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, but every time I tried them I found the same glaring flaws. Sure, there’s a lot less lag on the lock screen and a lot more apps have been released for Honeycomb, but the interface still feels too convoluted. Why is search on the top left corner and apps in the top right? Doesn’t it make more sense for there to be an apps button on the bottom (where the launcher has always been in Android)? Why not have the multitask button show my open apps on the left (like it already does) and the rest of my apps on the rest of the screen to the right? Then throw the search button down on the bottom to make the UI feel more cohesive.

A couple days ago Millennial Media released a report showing that Android was dominating iOS in terms of market share, iPads, iPhones, and iPods included. These numbers are astounding. I can still remember watching Apple keynotes where Steve Jobs would tout Apple’s superior numbers to Android’s, but I have a feeling even Jobs knew that their days of numbers domination were limited. Android’s phone strategy has been astoundingly successful. Despite having little to no contenders in the MP3 player market and marginal success in the tablet market, Android is still dominating Apple in terms of overall market share. That said, Gartner released a similar report a few days before that related only to tablets which clearly demonstrated that Apple has and will almost certainly continue to dominate the tablet market for the next few years. Now, the 2015 projections should really be taken with a grain of salt in my opinion (technology is changing too quickly for even a 3 year projection to be taken seriously), but the 2011 (and maybe 2012) numbers are fairly accurate.

The question is, why is iOS still dominating the market? I don’t necessarily think it’s that iOS has more tablet optimized apps or even that many people still use the word iPad when they mean any tablet at all. Instead, I think it’s the iPad’s simplicity that draws people to it over an Android tablet. The same can be said about the PlayBook and even the TouchPad – people avoided them because they weren’t as simple as the iPad. People see the PlayBook and saw the TouchPad, but most have passed by it based on their sales numbers. While Android tablets have certainly fared better, that isn’t saying much considering their competition. I would not go so far as to say that the iPad’s simplicity is the only reason that potential tablet owners pass by other offerings, but I do think it is the most important reason.

There is a tendency among Android enthusiasts like myself to say that people prefer the iPad because they can’t handle customizations or they haven’t given Honeycomb a real chance. Both of those situations could be true, but the reality is the iPad’s learning curve is a lot shorter than a Honeycomb tablet’s. People pick it up and know what to do with it right away. To unlock it the screen says “Slide to unlock.” To open an application, the user simply selects one of the icons before them from the home screen.

The iPad is dirt simple, but that simplicity comes at a price. The iPad’s lockscreen is a clone of the iPhone’s, which is admittedly nice on the iPhone but awkward on the iPad. The only way to customize the iPad with quick information is to jailbreak it, whereas Android has widgets that can quickly show information like the weather, a new email, or upcoming calendar events. There is a point at which extreme simplicity means a lack of innovation. Despite these shortcomings, I still think the iPad betters any Honeycomb tablet available today.

I want to be clear: I do not think Google should just copy Apple and make everything as simple as it can possibly be. I think Apple has and will continue to corner the market that wants a device that is as simple as possible despite the consequences. That said, I think that Google needs to simplify Android with Ice Cream Sandwich. While I think there is value to having the same OS on phones and tablets, I think the larger goal for Android on tablets needs to be to make the experience much simpler. Even making small changes like combining the multitasking button and apps button and moving the search button to the bottom would go a long way, but I think Ice Cream Sandwich should go even further.

By building in more apps into the Ice Cream Sandwich, Google can offer a much more complete experience. Right now if I want to create a document on stock Honeycomb I can either purchase an application from the Market or I can point my browser to Google Docs. Why in the world hasn’t Google added a native Google Docs app with offline syncing? The Honeycomb browser is decent, but at the same time I’d much rather have a tablet optimized version of Chrome that syncs all of my bookmarks and passwords to my device. Why doesn’t Google pay Citrix to build a built-in remote desktop app so that business users can remote into their desktops without having to purchase additional software? Why is there still not an official Picasa application for Android? One of the main things people use tablets for is to consume and show off media like pictures; having a built in Picasa app that syncs all of my photos (using the same pin metaphor that Google Music uses) just makes sense.

Another big selling point for Android would be to make Android phones and tablets work together like the HP Pre 3 and the TouchPad were going to. Imagine being able to reply to text messages or take a phone call on your tablet instead of your phone? I may not want to do that all the time, but I would love to have the option. Instead of having to clear the same notifications on my phone and my tablet, why don’t they talk together so that my notifications are in sync on both devices? Maybe I’m reading an article on my phone and I want to switch to my tablet. Instead of emailing myself the URL, doesn’t it make more sense for me to be able to push my browsing session to my tablet? What if apps could talk together between devices, so that when you open up Twitter on your tablet it loads to the same place you left off on your phone and vice versa.

It could be that Ice Cream Sandwich is nothing more than the unification of Android phones and tablet operating systems, but I have hope for more. I think Google needs to start playing hardball with Apple by making their tablet offerings differentiated by simplifying the interface, offering better built-in applications, and making ICS phones and tablets work together. This is the sort of innovation that Google needs to implement if Google wants to shift market share in their direction. Like the early smartphone market, there are still a lot of people who are waiting for a tablet that really fits all of their needs. If there is any company in the world right now that has the talent, the skill, and the motivation to make a better product than Apple, it’s Google.



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