Android Tablets: Google Says 'Yes' Then Says 'No'

We Android fans have been patiently (or not) waiting for a solid Android-based tablet since last winter. The iPad launched in April, of course, and it's a nice machine (I have one) but it comes with all the limitations we expect from Apple's walled-garden. I'm not knocking the iPad; I'm happy with it. But a similar form-factor with the goodness of Android would be really nice to have.

We've been promised just such a beast since CES. And now, on the cusp of the launch of the first contender to really capture the public's imagination (Samsung's Galaxy Tab, said to be launching on September 16th), Google throws us a curve ball. Speaking to TechRadar last week, Google's Director of Products for Mobile Hugo Barra went on record as saying Android 2.2 (Froyo) is "is not optimised for use on tablets."

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So what does that even mean? Early looks at the Galaxy Tab have been sounding fairly positive, right? Clearly Froyo is working fine there.

It sounds like Barra is talking about Google's Compatibility Definition. The Compatibility Definition Document (CDD) specifies that hardware must have a rear-facing camera, GPS, a 3-axis compass, 3-axis accelerometer, and more. If a piece of hardware isn't compatible, Google won't approve the Android Market for it. That's why we're seeing so many tablets that only support some kind of 3rd party Android app repository.

So what's Samsung's secret? I've heard the Galaxy Tab referred to as 'just an over-sized smartphone' which means it meets all the compatibility requirements (note that telephony is not a requirement). So why can't all the other tablets meet the conditions of the CDD? First is the issue of cost. The iPad seems pretty pricey to most consumers and the Android tablet makers want to launch a more affordable device. Putting (for example) GPS in a device that isn't super-portable (you probably aren't going to carry your tablet with you when you go out to dinner or to a ballgame) seems like an unnecessary expense.

But more importantly is the problem of screen size and other hardware differences. If the Galaxy Tab is just a big smartphone, it means all Android apps will run on it, but it'll be like running an iPhone app on the iPad (which you can do) rather than running a native iPad app that takes advantage of the extra screen real estate. (The better developers will produce universal apps that modify their UI to take advantage of larger screens, but there's no requirement for them to do so.) What we need is some kind of "Android Market for Tablets" that will hold only apps designed for a larger screen. Right now such a beast doesn't exist, though there are market filters that seem like they could accomplish the same result, assuming the developer uses them properly. The problem is that with no curators for the Android Market, there's no one to protect consumers from developers who don't filter properly (of course, the Android Market will issue refunds within 24 hours of a purchase).

So where does that leave us? Well, for now we're just going to have to be careful when shopping for a first generation Android tablet. You'll want either the official Android Market, or you'll want to know what the selection is like in whatever proprietary repository a device uses, or you'll want to be sure you can 'side-load' the apps you want to use. In the longer term, it sounds like Google is working on a tablet-specific version of Android (presumably with an entirely different set of compatibility requirements). Whether or not that's Gingerbread (Android 3.0) isn't clear. Nor is it clear how long we'll have to wait for the second generation of Android tablets.

It's a shame Google isn't ready to enthusiastically support an Android Tablet platform right now. I worry that a lot of consumers will buy Android tablets this holiday season and ultimately find them lacking, at least when compared to the iPads they see friends and family use. If the iPad only supported iPhone apps running at 2x size, would it be as popular as it is today?

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

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