I am not fan of Android tablets. That statement right there must sound pretty ridiculous, given my position, and it’s not because I haven’t owned them or given them a fair shake. In fact, I had an Archos 10.1-inch tablet that ran Android 2.2 and loved it, as much as you could love a giant phone. Even with devices running Honeycomb, like my ill-fated Archos A101 and those with Jelly Bean and above, such as the original Nexus 7 and G Pad 8.3 I also owned, still felt like giant phones. I even had a Nexus 9 up until a couple of months ago, and I did enjoy using it, as much as I did a giant phone. Where Google does get a lot of things right, is with their Nexus program, I’ve owned a Nexus S and a Nexus 5 over the years, and they were very good to me. The Nexus line represents what’s coming next for Android, and regardless of what anyone says, they are excellent smartphones in their own right. So, if we sum up the whole Android experience we have an excellent platform on smartphones, and a not-so-good experience on tablets. To offer the absolute best of both, Google need to follow Microsoft’s lead, but more than that they are in a position to beat Microsoft at their own game.
Recently, I purchased a Surface 3 to replace my Nexus 9 and HP Chromebook in one fell swoop. It has performed wonderfully. The keyboard cover is great, the 10.5-inch display looks very nice and the kickstand is a must. There’s a massive flaw with any Windows 10 tablet however and that’s that the apps and games selection is just downright pathetic. Seriously, the Microsoft Store is genuinely as barren as people say it is, and compared to the Google Play Store it looks and feels like a ghost town, except a ghost town would be good fun, this isn’t. On the flip side of this however, I have a genuine PC in my hands, sure it’s only a quad-core Atom, but if I wanted a somewhat comically-large tablet with a Core i3 and better graphics I could get a Surface Pro 3 and a better overall experience. Having this full PC in my hands means I get proper Desktop Chrome, I can use the editing suite we use to watermark photos, I can play old school PC games, I have access to whatever obscure Windows application I want, because I have a PC. It wasn’t always this great however, and Google have actually been successful at showing Microsoft how deploying an OS is done with Chrome OS.
There is a strange parallel between Google and Microsoft’s hardware offerings, both mobile and otherwise. Where Google has somehow managed to convince ASUS, HP, Lenovo and Acer to ship Chromebooks with just Google’s software on it the same partners ruin Windows for millions of customers worldwide. CyberLink bundles with HP laptops anyone? Windows Updates turned off by default in Samsung laptops? Shortcut links to eBay and every other website under the sun? This is what has become of Windows laptops and even some tablet hybrids from the likes of HP, Dell and Lenovo. Google have managed to achieve this with their Chromebooks, but ultimately fail when it comes to smartphones and tablets, it is the reverse of the Windows problem, and while Microsoft is showing partners how it’s done with the Surface and new Surface Book, Google is quietly asking with Nexus offerings each year.
My Surface 3 is genuinely the best experience I have ever had with Windows, and I’ve built and installed Windows on a number of machines over the years. Why? Because it’s as Microsoft intended, without any crap installed along with it. The Nexus devices achieve the same sort of effect, but they don’t go far enough. While partnering with LG has done Google well, partnering with Samsung and HTC over the years hasn’t. The Galaxy Nexus was essentially a way for Samsung to get at least some branding in there and Verizon ended up ruining it for everyone. The HTC Nexus 9 meanwhile, was a device that cost too much, presumably because HTC is a company that needs to make a decent amount of money on every unit they sell. Shackling the Nexus name to partners is okay for now, but if Google really want Android to be taken seriously without ifs and buts they need to produce their own hardware. Then there’s the Pixel, now we’re talking.
The Pixel Persuasion
Anyone that has been able to spend time with either the original Chromebook Pixel or the second coming will tell you something like “what a laptop!” or “that keyboard is great!” or more likely “that screen, though!” These are all valid comments, and the Chromebook Pixel is a great piece of hardware, but then people end up saying something else like “it’s how much for a web browser?!” even so, it is undeniable that the Pixel name is Google’s own way of offering up their own hardware that is both excellently made and compelling efficient. Google is turning to this Pixel name in order to revive Android tablets with the Pixel C, and I hope it works, but it probably won’t.
The reason is pretty simple, for every piece of hardware that Google makes on their own – or partners with others to create – they ship a version of Android that is the same as well, everything else out there. Stock Android is brandished as being “boring” and “basic” for a couple of big reasons; 1) Samsung and others have become excellent at filling in the gaps (multi-window, anyone) and 2) Google cannot upset say, HTC, by creating a phone with Huawei (the Nexus 6P, for instance) with features they cannot get access to. And so, large releases of Android, such as last year’s Android 5.0 Lollipop, change the overall look and feel massively, but change few other things. Give someone a KitKat device and then a Lollipop device, one is undeniably more attractive, but neither is going to be a massive change to the user.
You can’t give one of your friends more time and attention and then expect your other friends to be okay with it. It’s a simplistic way of putting it, but this is where Google finds itself every year with the Nexus program. We can’t imagine that Samsung was happy with the comment Google made about LG being “the best partner” not too long ago. If Google made their own smartphones every year, they could blow the whole Android ecosystem wide open, for the benefit of consumers and they could quite easily light a fire under Samsung, HTC, LG and others in the process.
Imagine, for a moment, if Google made their own hardware just as Microsoft have done. They could use Android in any way they wanted, keep it nice and clean, or add in a few extra features that only their devices have on offer. After a couple of years of these devices being on the market, do we think as many people would buy a Samsung device with the uncertainty of slow updates and all sorts of other bundled stuff (ironically, from Microsoft these days) that gets in the way of their experience? I am however, talking about creating a two-tiered Android, which is not what an open platform is all about, but this is already happening right now.
Buy a Galaxy S6 device from Samsung, and all of those extra features and such that Samsung pile in to their devices will inevitably make a device that doesn’t have these features seem inferior to the average user. Besides, with the structure that Google has built in recent years, leveraging on Google Play Services and API Levels, Google could quite easily ship a device with their software features and still have complete compatibility where apps are concerned across the whole platform. Remember, just because Google created Android and Open Source it, does not mean they are under any obligation to Open Source everything.
If Google were to follow Microsoft’s lead when it comes to hardware, we could end up with devices with fresh designs, logo-free displays, super-speedy updates and peace of mind knowing that you get the software from the designer, just as they intended it. Having an ecosystem like the one they do now however, is surely benefitting Google though, why else do it? Alas, we can all but dream, right?