The idea of a tablet computer and exactly who came up with it is as storied as the history of the market itself, but for all intents and purposes, it was arguably Microsoft that gave the world the first real-world applications for a tablet computer. Of course, these were clunky Windows PCs with an operating system not designed for touch at all, and it's safe to say that the Apple iPad has not only cornered the market, but locked it away and banned everyone else from succeeding. Sure, Microsoft themselves are doing great with their Surface line of devices, Samsung sells a decent amount of Galaxy Tabs powered by Android, and there are now fresh designs like the Lenovo Yoga Book available. Even so, the world of the Android tablet has become a fairly bleak and boring landscape, with devices that appear to offer very little from devices released not just a year ago, but a few years ago. I think we all remember the Motorola Xoom, right? Even if you don't remember the first "official" Android tablet, they have sadly changed very little since then, and for Google, this is a big problem. So much of a problem that it has me wondering whether or not Google should simply forget about tablets altogether, or perhaps change the idea of what an Android tablet is at the very least.
I might only be 25, but I've gone through my fair share of Android tablets, and my first Android tablet was an Archos A101, a 10.1-inch monster running Android 2.2 FroYo. These were dark days, with manufacturers shoehorning a phone operating system onto their devices in order to capture some of the initial iPad buzz. I went for the Archos not because it was flashy – it was anything but – but because Android was – and still very much is – the most flexible choice for something like a tablet. If we look at the potential that Android tablets have today, such as a file manager, great apps from Google, a new multi-window mode in Android 7.0 Nougat and some stunning hardware, it's a wonder there aren't more Android tablets out there. Since then, I moved on to the 7.0-inch Acer Iconia A100, one of the first Tegra 2 tablets to run Android 3.0 Honeycomb in a smaller-than-10.1-inch form factor. I then moved on to the original Nexus 7, then LG's original G Pad 8.3 (which has to go down as one of the most unsung heroes of the Android tablet world) and then I ended up with a Nexus 9 when it launched. The point to me listing all these different tablets is that despite multiple tasty versions of Android having come and gone throughout their life spans, Android on tablets still remained the same; little more than a giant phone operating system.
There will be many that disagree with me on this, and that's fine, but it's fairly obvious at this point that Google never really tried that hard when it came to tablets. Initial offerings seemed to have a lot of potential, Android 3.0 Honeycomb as well as Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich had a UI with a taskbar running at the bottom which felt like a Desktop, but was easy enough to use with nothing more than your God-given fingers. Then, Android 4.1 Jelly Bean came along and the aim of the game quickly became to "unify" the look and feel on Android, no matter the size or form factor. This is an admirable goal, but the tablet most definitely suffered as a result. The Nexus 7 was great with such an arrangement, because apps that were built for the phone worked just fine on a 7.0-inch 16:9 display, which is effectively a larger phone, but 10-inch tablets did not benefit from this change. What we ended up with was a user interface that simply felt stretched and shoehorned onto devices it was never designed for. Three buttons on the bottom of a 10-inch wide display for back, home and recents? It looked amateur, and the notification pulldown didn't help matters, either. The potential that earlier versions of Android had on tablets from a UI standpoint was effectively wiped out, and it's clear that Google themselves feel they made some sort of a mistake here, as the Pixel C from last year got some changes to those three buttons.
In the past couple of years, we've seen a trend in the world of Android tablets towards devices that can happily pass off as some sort of small Laptop. The Xperia Z4 Tablet is one excellent example of this. When I reviewed the sleek and powerful Quad HD machine, I was very impressed with what Sony had done not only with their hardware, but also with Android itself. Introducing a sort of Start Bar into Android as well as some recent apps on that task bar at the bottom, Sony had managed to make Android feel infinitely more usable on a device with a mouse and keyboard. Google took their time to follow suit, but did so with the Pixel C, but again, it smacked of something that was a little half-baked and focused too much on the "wow factor" than anything long term users would be interested in. The keyboard's magnetic tricks are superb, and the way the tablet charges the keyboard is similarly excellent, but the Pixel C and Xperia Z4 Tablet have something in common beyond their keyboard. They are both ridiculously expensive.
Android tablets now are essentially just larger smartphones, nothing else. The launchers that Google and partners furnish them with is the same as the one from Android smartphones, the notification tray and UI buttons feel out of place, and the apps available from the Play Store – aside from games, which are often much more enjoyable on tablets – are often just the same phone apps with another side menu or just more space to play with. Not only have they consistently felt like devices that are under-utilized, but also too expensive and generally disappointing.
So, what's the solution? It's not a case of one solution, but rather a case of two solutions, and Google have them both to use as they see fit, and just don't seem to know what to do with them. Chrome OS now runs Android apps like a treat. Chrome OS is also available on devcies that cost very little, but often provide users with better value than your bottom-shelf Windows laptop, and many of them have touchscreens and rotating displays. Imagine a tablet that ran Chrome OS, but ran all the same Android apps you know and love, and with the touch of a button becomes what we used to think of as an Android tablet. When connected to a keyboard, or flipped back around with the keyboard and becomes a Chrome OS Chromebook. To me, that would mark the perfect blend of two great assets Google has at their disposal. Sure, not everyone is going to use the Chrome OS side of things, but from experience of owning both, Chrome OS is much more useful than an Android tablet is. Web apps have become so sophisticated that you could arguably do everything you need to from working online with Google Docs or Office 365 to watching YouTube and browsing imgur. There is very little that, for a casual user that doesn't work with professional software, a Chromebook or Chrome OS PC cannot do today. The same can be said of Android of course, so why not put the two together on the same piece of hardware?
The mythical merger of Chrome OS and Android has been prophesized for years now, but the thing is that Google doesn't even need to formally merge the two, they've already done it. Chrome OS running Android apps brings the heart and soul of any great Android tablet or device to a whole new platform. One that has the Desktop version of Chrome, which is more powerful than the Android version thanks to extensions and apps, a file browser, a Desktop interface with full multi-window support and a sleek, Material Design.
Earlier, I listed the Android tablets that I had acquired over the years, and those with an astute eye will note the Nexus 9 is getting a little long in the tooth, and that's because I now own a Surface 3. I bought the Surface 3 last Fall when Windows 10 was getting off the ground, and it is an operating system+hardware combo that Google should look very closely at. The tablet mode of Windows 10 has an interface that's finger-friendly, but also offers quick access to the full-Windows that lies underneath. Switching out of this gives me a full Windows 10 desktop, and while my non-Pro Surface 3 is not the fastest machine out there, it is a real treat to have Desktop Chrome on a tablet like this, as well as the freedom of running whatever Windows software I want. I can, quite easily, even run Android on this thing, too. The model for Google to follow is already on store shelves, and if we look at recent ads from Microsoft, it's making the iPad look stupid. There's little reason why Google can't make a Surface of their own.
The Pixel brand is taking off, and it's even absorbing the Nexus duties of releasing stock Android every year, so why not use the Pixel name and make a Pixel C with Chrome OS as the big OS and Android as the little OS? The two go hand-in-hand more than ever now, and for casual users, there are so many apps in the Play Store and so many tools online that it's hard to imagine the few gaps that would end up as sticking points for Google. Price it lower than the iPad or around the same price, and Google would instantly have something familiar and yet more powerful than the iPad at the click of their fingers. The tools for Google to succeed and take back market share from the iPad are there right in front of them, but as we've seen countless times with Google and tablets, it could already be too late.