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The Android tablet problem, nicely summarized by one review’s conclusion

From Ars Technica’s review of the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1:

The Galaxy Tab 10.1 easily has the best hardware of any Android tablet on the market today. Samsung has really outdone itself—the Tab 10.1’s svelte profile and impressively light weight (it weighs less than an iPad and has more RAM) are sure to attract the attention of consumers.

Really? Will a lot of customers notice the 2% thickness difference or the 6% weight savings over an iPad 2? I guess it must be the RAM they’re clamoring for, since that’s a hotly debated spec among iPad buyers.

Hardware excellence isn’t the only measure of a good tablet, however; software is arguably just as important—if not more so—on such a personal device.

Google has moved Honeycomb forward with Android 3.1 and has thankfully fixed the stability problems, but that’s still not enough. Honeycomb’s barren third-party application landscape really hobbles the Tab 10.1 and other Android tablets.

Translation: Android tablets have managed to copy the iPad’s hardware well enough — the easy part — but have failed to provide good software and significant third-party app choice — the hard part.

So, with similar hardware with similar capabilities selling at similar prices, why should someone choose an Android tablet over an iPad?

The main users who will find the Tab 10.1 appealing are Android enthusiasts who like the platform’s flexibility, are tightly bound to Google’s Web service ecosystem, and are comfortable using Android phone applications on a 10.1-inch screen.

“Only die-hard Android fans should buy this, and even most of them won’t enjoy it.”

The Tab 10.1 is also a good choice for third-party Android developers looking for real-world hardware on which to test and develop their applications.

(I’ll come back to this.)

The 16:10 aspect ratio and dual speakers also make the Tab 10.1 a reasonable choice for users who watch a lot of mobile video. One problem, however, is limited content; no compatible Netflix or Crackle applications exist for the Tab 10.1—just Google’s nascent video rental service and whatever content is available via Flash in the browser.

“The Tab is a reasonable choice for people who watch a lot of video, as long as it’s all pirated, because there’s almost no legal content available.”

The Tab 10.1 is a much more credible product than the Xoom, but it’s not quite competitive with the iPad.

Is it safe to assume that “it’s not quite competitive with the iPad” means “almost nobody should choose this over the iPad”?

If Google wants to compete, it still needs to build a vibrant third-party application ecosystem in order to make Android tablets a good option for regular users.

This is a classic chicken-and-egg problem. Google, and any other tablet makers, needn’t be so concerned about attracting developers. Developers come, generally, when at least two of these three criteria are met:

  1. Developers themselves use and love the platform’s products.
  2. The platform has a large installed base.
  3. Developers can make decent money on the platform.

Different types of developers, and therefore different types of apps, show up depending on which criteria are met. Windows has lost a lot of ground on the first for quite some time. Mac OS struggled with the second for most of its history. Android phones have had a lot of trouble achieving the third. And, to date, Android tablets have failed to meet any of them.

The iPhone hit the first two immediately upon its launch, before developers could even make apps for it. We practically beat the doors down. Apple didn’t need to do anything to encourage us — in fact, they had to keep us back for the first year until they were ready for the onslaught, at which point we realized that the third criterion was satisfied.

The iPad hit all three immediately, helped in part by the iPhone’s success, and once again, developers rushed to it. No respectable reviews ever complained that there were too few iPad apps, or that it would be a useful product “soon”.

I’ve written about all of this before, but it’s worth revisiting.

The gadget reviewers seem to believe that it’s only a matter of time before these theoretical developers rush into the Android-tablet market with tons of high-quality apps. But time isn’t the problem. If these tablets continue (not) selling at their current pace, the reviewers (and the unfortunate few early adopters who bought these things) will be waiting forever.

Developers will rush to Android tablets once a lot of people are buying Android tablets. But hardly anyone will buy them if there’s too little compelling software available.

So there must be a very good reason why someone would choose any given Android tablet over an iPad, and that reason can’t be the available apps.

This, not how closely a manufacturer can mimic the iPad’s hardware, is what reviewers should be asking about each new tablet: Why would a significant number of buyers choose this instead of an iPad?

Or, more generally: What will cause enough people to buy this that developers will beat down the door to make great apps for it?

I’m still waiting for any iPad “competitors” to give us a good answer.

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