AH Primetime: Android For Tablets Needs A Nudge From Google

December 28, 2015 - Written By David Steele

Android is a flexible, mostly open source platform that has dominance in the smartphone world. We have competitors, sure; Apple’s iPhone is the next largest competitor, then we have a number of niche offerings and in here we find Microsoft Windows Phone, BlackBerry 10, Symbian and Tizen OS. As it happens, these niche operating systems do still have millions of users, but in terms of scale they remain small players. Now; one of the fundamental reasons as to why Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android operating systems have worked so well is because of the availability of third party applications. There are millions available for both platform, but there are also differences – apparently, you’ll find the quality applications across in the Apple store and the Google Play Store has the inferior quality of applications. Depending on the device(s) you are using, there’s either relatively little difference in application quality but one golden rule is the larger the device, the relatively poorer the Android application experience is.

There are a few structural reasons for this. One is that Google has a much lighter control and Apple’s dictatorial approach with application developers. Yes, Apple’s stranglehold on the requirements for applications tends to mean that those that qualify are decent quality, but not always. Google’s approach, for example to the user interface is to use “responsive design.” This is definitely optimized for smartphone-sized gadgets, and applications scale well to work with devices of screens up to around the 6.0-inch point, a little larger thanks to the successful two Nexus 7 tablets. However, once we get into the realms of the larger tablets, many applications don’t utilize the space as well on Android compared with iOS and the iPad. Some applications still default to portrait mode, which makes using them on a tablet very amusing. And yes; let’s deal with the lack of an official split screen function within Android, showing more than one application on the device. We’ve heard it’s coming but isn’t here yet if you use stock Android.

At what point do we start to blame developers for not optimizing their applications for larger screens, or blaming Google for either not enforcing user interface layouts or for not leading by example? Or do we blame the manufacturers for building a massive number of different devices and then not keeping them updated? Android’s very nature is as much a strength as a weakness: we can have Android installed on almost anything with compatible hardware (except it seems the iOS products), but in order to give it this flexibility, the core operating system needs additional work. Is Android more of a chassis for manufacturers to build upon, as Samsung has done with its tablet offerings? Naysayers touting their Apple products state that this leads to fragmentation, whereas Android fans state that this leads to choice. Fragmentation and choice are opposite sides of the same coin: but manufacturers should be doing more to keep the underlying operating system up to date rather than concentrating on selling new devices.

Google has certainly laid the framework for manufacturers to build on top of Android. A recent example is how it has included fingerprint sensors and accompanying software in the last two Nexus smartphone devices. There are other examples too – back with the release of the Samsung Galaxy Nexus and Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, Google incorporated a number of social feed APIs (Application Programmable Interfaces) designed to connect third party applications with the People (or Contacts) application. Google’s objective was to incorporate additional features into the People application such that it would be the launching point for other applications and services; we could have been able to connect with people via Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or any other compatible social network. This hasn’t happened, instead the Facebook application on Android regularly pleads with customers to share their address book so it can harass their contacts, as one example. The social networks have their own agenda but all the same it is disappointing that developers have not used Google’s framework.

Are things going to change? Google has already started to change Android. Android 5.0 Lollipop pulled applications closer to the operating system in order to make the experience feel more joined up for customers. Google is also working on new technologies such that customers can use third party applications without it being installed on the device, but instead by streaming the application over the Internet. We’ve seen new features incorporated into the Google Chrome browser and Google Search that reduce the need for third party applications to be installed onto our device. Google’s other mobile operating system, Chrome OS, works very effectively without third party applications and instead customers can simply use the browser for their everyday computing needs. We’ve seen the Microsoft Surface range of tablets switch from the concept of using an app (or application) to using the full program – together with the necessary device drivers in order to work with a large number of hardware peripherals. The Surface deals with the application issue a different way; instead of trying to upscale a desktop-type solution from tablet hardware, it squeezes a desktop-type solution into tablet hardware.

Google’s Pixel C tablet is currently limited by the software but has, according to several sources, the best tablet hardware out there. We’re not sure what Google will be doing with the Pixel C software, if it will stay similar to current builds of Android or if it will become a test bed to combine elements of Chrome OS with Android. Perhaps we will see a new version of Android developers for tablets, similar to what Google did when they released Android 3.0 Honeycomb before they combined Android versions into 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich. Early adopters of the Pixel C may see a very different software experience this time next year – but one that must presumably keep full backwards compatibility so as not to isolate these early customers. Or perhaps Google is not investing into tablets because it sees the market as ripe for a massive change: the Microsoft Surface is a new class of computing device and whilst it is still not perfect, it has come a long way. Maybe it’s time for Google’s Chrome OS to jump in and Android will be reserved for smaller devices?