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Don’t write Android’s obit yet

PC Magazine’s Tim Bajarin seems ready to write the obituary for Android for tablets which, to me, seems extremely premature.
He cites Amazon and B&N using customized/splintered/forked versions of Android as part of the problem. But doesn’t that count? It’s custom Android, but it’s still Android, to one degree or another. To me, it’s two additional companies trying to figure out how to get an Android tablet right.

I see a parallel in the PC market. Back in the Windows 3.1 days, PC manufacturers tried various things to get Windows right. Both Compaq and Packard Bell loaded different user interfaces on top of Windows to improve the user experience. Compaq used an interface called Tabworks; Packard Bell had something it called Navigator. Then Windows 95 came along, and that pretty much ended the practice. That user interface had some rough spots too, but it improved over time.

We’ve yet to see what the market reaction to Amazon’s and B&N’s 7-inch tablets will be. The reviews are certainly less harsh than for other Android tablets. They sold well sight unseen–Amazon will sell between 4 and 5 million by year end–and from what I’m reading, the biggest problem these tablets face right now is the availability of 7-inch screens to go in them. Indications suggest they may very well sell every tablet they can make.

And it’s not as if Google has thrown in the towel. There’s a buzz surrounding Android 4.0. Whether it will do for tablets what Windows 95 did for PCs remains to be seen.

Android tablets do have a problem, but by my count, at least four different communities are working on the problem: Google, Amazon, B&N, and the modding community. Expect all four to steal any good idea one of the others comes up with. That’s a healthy ecosystem.

This is still a young market. I see a lot of tablets at airports, but there are still a lot of people interested in tablets who haven’t bought them yet. Every time I see my extended family, I get questions. But some members of the extended family, conspicuously, aren’t asking questions yet. There are still several waves of potential purchasers to go. One of those waves would include my neighbors, who don’t even own a computer at all. Would they be interested in a tablet? I think they potentially would be, given the right combination of factors: A low enough price, some capability they can’t live without, and sufficient ease of use.

That capability they can’t live without–the fabled “killer app”–probably hasn’t been invented yet for some people. There probably will be several, in the end. And it may not be exclusive to one particular tablet.

We’re still working on sufficient ease of use. Apple made a significant jump with Siri this year, but Siri isn’t going to win the war. Siri wasn’t the first attempt at voice control and won’t be the last. It’s a step forward. There are companies that have been working on voice recognition and natural language processing a lot longer than Apple–Nuance and IBM come immediately to mind–and if Apple can do it, those companies can do it. So can Google, and so can Microsoft.

Price is where Android has the significant advantage. My next-door neighbors will never pay $500 for a tablet. They just won’t. The price they would be willing to pay depends on that killer app, but the lower the price is, the better. Apple’s never been willing to play in that space. Microsoft will, but once they establish their market share, they raise prices. Google sees Android solely as a way to make money indirectly, so they’re willing to give it away. When you buy an Android tablet, you’re paying for hardware and patent licenses.

Today, in late 2011, Android has 52.5 percent of the smartphone market, compared to Apple’s 15 percent.

Remember, Android 1.0 and the first phone based on it didn’t appear until late 2008, 15 months after Apple’s first Iphone. In mid-2009, Android’s marketshare was 2.8 percent. By February 2010–doesn’t that seem like only yesterday?–Android had managed to carve out 10 percent of the market, but over the next seven months, it grew to 21.4 percent.

Android’s success in smartphones didn’t come overnight. So there’s no reason to believe success will come overnight in tablets, either.

In other news…

On Tuesday morning, Amazon released the source code for the Kindle Fire to much fanfare, most of it undeserved given that they just released the GPL portions of the code. It does seem to be news today when large companies do what’s legally required, but it’s nothing earth-shaking. This release doesn’t mean anyone will be turning someone else’s 10-inch tablet into an oversized Kindle Fire.

And Cyanogenmod 9 (based on Android 4.0, a.k.a. Ice Cream Sandwich) is working on Samsung Nexus S phones and in alpha 11 now–all features working, no major remaining bugs. Life is going to get a lot more interesting as work on Cyanogenmod 9 continues, as it’s going to be a big upgrade for existing phones and tablets. When the vendor drops support for future versions of Android, Cyanogenmod is the most obvious upgrade path.

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