Holiday tablet wars are here, but where's Android?

Don't look for Android among the heaps of shiny, new tablets headed to store shelves this holiday season.

Even as other tech giants such as Microsoft, Apple, and Amazon duke it out with new and noteworthy models like Surface, iPad Mini (the presumed name of Apple's still-to-be-announced tablet), and Kindle Fire HD, tablet makers are largely leaving Google's operating system out in the cold.

Acer Iconia Tab A110 tablet

There are some exceptions, of course. Google's own Nexus 7 has been available since July, and may soon get a 32GB option according to a few unconfirmed sightings. Samsung is still pushing its Galaxy Note 10.1, which launched in August, and Sony is expected to re-launch its Experia Tablet S after fixing a design flaw. Acer just announced an Android 4.1 Jelly Bean tablet, the Acer Iconia Tab A110, to compete with the bevy of 7-inch tablets already here and coming soon.

But if you're looking for high-end or otherwise noteworthy Android tablets over the next couple of months, prepare to be disappointed. We're hearing that most major tablet makers will let the holidays go by without anything new on the Android front.

Difficult waters

Android tablets have faced trouble since the beginning. The earliest version of Google's Android tablet software, known as 3.0 and codenamed Honeycomb, was buggy, subject to lags, and prone to stuttering. The undercooked OS robbed precious curb appeal from the first wave of Android tablets in mid-2011 and may have contributed to weak early sales.

Apple iPad 3

The next two versions of Android—Ice Cream Sandwich (4.0) and Jelly Bean (4.1)—have made the interface a lot more usable. But there's another problem: Android doesn't have as many optimized tablet apps as Apple's iPad.

Much digital ink has been spilled on Android's tablet app problem, but it comes down to couple of key reasons. For one thing, app development is harder to justify when sales are slow. For another, app development is more difficult when any given app must be optimized for a vast array of devices.

(Just to be clear, when talking about slow sales, I'm excluding Amazon's Kindle Fire and Barnes & Noble's Nook tablets. They've given a huge boost to Android tablet market share, but have their own app stores and run heavily-modified versions of Android.)

Windows 8 impact

In light of weak sales, it's no surprise that tablet makers are flocking to Windows 8 and Windows RT for salvation. While no one knows whether the new tablet-friendly Windows will be a hit, device makers are at least giving it a shot.

Over the last couple weeks, we've seen new hardware announcements from Acer, Asus, Lenovo, Samsung and Sony. Dell and HP have also announced tablets and should come out with pricing details soon. The collective launch of Windows 8 tablets makes for a bigger bang than Android tablets ever had.

Amazon Kindle Fire HD

That's not to say tablet makers are done with Android. Another explanation for the weak showing this holiday season may be a lack of exciting new hardware specs. Nvidia's Tegra 3 processor is nearly a year old, so tablet makers could be waiting for the next version of Tegra, or for Qualcomm's Snapdragon S4 Pro, before they bring new high-end tablets to market.

Still, flashy new hardware alone won't turn Android tablets around—a point that device makers surely realize by now. I suspect that Android tablets will trickle out slowly, as they have for the last year, and only the companies who bring unique selling points to the tablet—like Samsung and its stylus-infused Note 10.1—or bring good performance at a low price, will have much success.

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

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