iPad

Android tablets could still transform the market

Donovan Colbert has faith that Android tablets will rise from obscure dark horses to overtake the iOS incumbent. Do you think the iPad will always be king?

Despite some turbulence during takeoff, my experience with the ASUS Eee Pad TF101 Transformer, it has been a very smooth honeymoon. Things haven't been perfect -- there have been some troubling little flaws that I've mostly overlooked -- but for the most part, the device has really lived up to my expectations.

Note: This post originally appeared in TechRepublic's Google in the Enterprise blog.

No to iPad

I could never really justify bringing my 64GB WiFi-only Apple iPad into the office. For one thing, it was too darned expensive, at over $800 brand new. The device also has an allure, so taking it out of the house just seemed like a bad idea all around. I saw two potential outcomes -- a broken iPad or a stolen one. In either case, the stress didn't seem worth it.

Beyond that, I simply couldn't find a lot of justification for the iPad to be at the office other than as a distraction from other things I really should be working on. I know there have been volumes written about the enterprise applications of the iOS tablet, but I just don't see it. I think most professionals who drag an iPad to the office are far more interested in prestige than in productivity. I think this is the pink elephant in the room.

The truth is, most of what our smartphones do beyond contact management, calendar, scheduling, and e-mail is over-kill for most employees. We misuse these devices to install Beer Drinking, Light Saber simulators, play Angry Birds, or update Facebook (which may or may not be work related). But one way we identify our firms as successful is by the gadgets that our executives, management, and technology staff carry. If a lead IT architect/engineer shows up with an 8-year-old dumb-phone on his belt, that sends a message about how his firm regards technology investments.

The biggest flaw of the iPad for professional productivity is that form follows function, and the iPad is designed to be a casual content consumption device used at home -- it's a coffee table computer, and Apple has been clear about that product placement since the original announcement, when Steve Jobs sat with his legs crossed in an overstuffed leather chair holding the iPad like a magazine or book. Lack of a built-in USB or a SD reader just compounded the design issues. The iPad is not really designed for serious productivity. It can do it, after a fashion -- but it's an afterthought at best.

Calling the Transformers

From Cracking Open

And this has been where the Transformer has really shined. The ability to dock it and turn it into a netbook-like clamshell device makes all the difference for having the device play a useful productivity role in my professional life on a day-to-day basis. I have it on my desk every day, just left of my Lenovo Thinkpad X201 laptop.

If I need to hop onto a public network or a MiFi hotspot and try hitting my network from the outside, the TF101 is right there, ready to spring into action. If I need to download a large file like a service pack, MSDN .iso or SDK during the production day, likewise, the TF101 does the heavy lifting. Once complete, I can copy the file easily to a thumb drive and then onto my work notebook or to a colleague's machine.

The transformation is the key. Form follows function, and this device can transform what function it's suited for: casual consumption and communication on the couch as a tablet at home, a button-down business clamshell at the office -- which is, literally, how I've used the device. Business dress where appropriate, casual outfit otherwise.

Docking trouble

News that the TF101 dock has a flaw that causes battery drain is very disappointing to me. It makes it worse that the patch released by ASUS does not cure the issue on my dock. Instead, I have to ship it back for physical repair. I've got the dock boxed up with RMA paperwork, ready to go -- and the TF101 tablet is on my dresser at home, next to my iPad.

My Lenovo S10 sits in the place on my desk where my TF101 would normally be, and I'm kind of bummed. Without the dock, it makes as much sense to bring the Eee Pad to work as to bring the iPad. They're just tablets without that magical accessory that makes them something more.

I'm disappointed because there was so much excitement about the Transformer, and yet ASUS has turned it into such a fundamentally flawed launch. This is something that the Android platform cannot afford, especially in the tablet space. The worst part is that the dock really does deliver impressive runtime. With the 9-hour battery life off of the tablet and an additional 6 hours of battery life from the dock, if you really had a need to sit at the screen for 15 hours, the Transformer can handle it.

The problem is the standby drain. In particular, when docked, the battery life falls like a lead balloon. If you only use the device for a couple of hours over a 24 hour period and leave it docked without charging, you'll be out of juice when you come back to the tablet after an evening's rest.

ASUS was terribly unprepared for the demand for this product at launch, and this flaw seems to be affecting a lot of users. Nobody is going to remember the DHCP Wi-Fi issues that the iPad had when it was first released -- and the truth is, that issue was fixed by a software update, not a lengthy RMA process. It simply looks like another way where Android products and vendors can't meet Apple's standards.

This issue could not have happened at a worse time for my Android morale. The last several weeks have seen a flurry of activity discussing how Android tablets seem to be having as much trouble gaining traction against the iPad as the 1st gen Android phones had against the iPhone.

The last article even points out that a fairer comparison illustrates that the number is actually like 12:1 during the period that Honeycomb tablets have been available. I'd further argue that compelling and attractively-priced Honeycomb tablets have been around an even shorter amount of time. I think a lot of these numbers are biased or sensationalist. Still, these numbers make it hard to remain positive, especially when I'm returning my Android tablet dock to repair a relatively unacceptable flaw.

I've still got faith. I'm optimistic that history will repeat itself, and Android tablets will rise from obscure dark horses to overtake the iOS incumbent -- but it's difficult in the face of such overwhelmingly negative press and opinion to keep a positive outlook.

What do you think? Are Android tablets slowly building steam and market momentum, or is the tablet market something inherently different than the smartphone segment? Let us hear your opinions in the discussion thread below.

Also read:

About

Donovan Colbert has over 16 years of experience in the IT Industry. He's worked in help-desk, enterprise software support, systems administration and engineering, IT management, and is a regular contributor for TechRepublic. Currently, his profession...

16 comments
Docwert
Docwert

Give me a tablet that can do what my desktop can do! I want USB ports so I can add a DVD burner, a USB hard drive, a printer or any other cool toy out there. I want a dock for a full Key board and large monitor and have it charge while I am using it in the dock. I want to connect to a domain network. Don't care if it is Apple, Windows, Android or Ubuntu. I want to make it do what I want it to do not what some head in the cloud designer wants it to do!

T3CHN0M4NC3R
T3CHN0M4NC3R

Android is by far the most flexible OS for a tablet. I LOL at people who copy from tablet to a USB drive. You can actually connect the USB port and do a direct transfer if you do it right with full access. With iPad you only get to see a thing or 2 from the USB and a few things more with iTunes. Android apps are ugly? More and more Apple devs are going Android for obvious reasons. So what's killing Android tablets? The stupid resource hogging jumpy laggy for no apparent reason UIs.

wompai
wompai

I don't find the Transformer much of a tablet. It's mostly a netbook. That's why I don't think tablets are going to transform the market. This Asus Transformer has a build in keyboard and 2 USB ports that enable a wireless mouse. This thing is not a tablet, it's a netbook with a different OS.

Vulpinemac
Vulpinemac

I believe WP8 on a tablet will prove the stronger competitor over Android for exactly the reasons Android has failed so far to effectively compete--it's not the form factor, it's not the OS itself, it's the integrated environment that Windows is more likely to provide. What I see is Android becoming the epitome of what Donovan considers iOS to be; almost exclusively a media consumption device with little real productivity capabilities down the road. iOS has word processors, spreadsheets, presentation software and even PhotoShop ready, willing and able--not even considering a CAD reader and other truly functional applications far beyond the "silly noises and silly animations" that are just as prevalent on Android devices but as even Donovan says, aren't as cleanly coded as the iOS apps. No, Android is headed towards becoming just another Linux, fading slowly into the hobby corner while more usable OSes demonstrate their productivity. The tablet form factor is useful for far more than media consumption--the old paper and pencil clipboards would never exist if there weren't a need for a capability to take notes while walking down the production line or pulling product at warehouses. The convertible might be marginally more functional, but there have been Windows convertibles out for a decade now to very little success. Yes, maybe they're cheaper now, but they're not really any more capable than the current round of netbooks and at least those run Windows. The desktop pc has an obvious purpose. The clamshell laptop's purpose is as a 'portable desktop'. The netbook is nothing more than an undersized, underpowered clamshell laptop. The tablet is the modern clipboard, intended for checklists, extreme mobility for when you can't or won't want to set a clamshell down due to environmental conditions one way or another. Until you realize that there is a very real benefit to a tablet form factor, you'll simply get left behind the technology curve, riding your horse while your competitor drives away in his electric car.

Komplex
Komplex

Has there been any Android tablet that hasn't had insanely stupid fundamental flaws? You had to ship the Xoom back to the manufacturer for 4G, (also for SD support right?). The only reason why Android succeeded in the smartphone marketplace was because of Apple's decision to partner with one vendor for far too long. As Apple releases iPhones to the other Telcos, the high end Droids will suffer. We'll end up with a marketplace like the MP3 players. Apple dominated 75% of the market and a bunch of also rans competing for scraps. Amazon can save the Android Tablet because they are a consumer product company like apple. They don't sell to Telcos or Enterprises. They are using their own version of Android which I'm betting strips out all the battery and performance sucking features (background applications for example).

daboochmeister
daboochmeister

... and now this, i don't know whether to love you or hate you. Could you make up my mind, pls?? :-)

jpapproth
jpapproth

IMHO until we decide to look at working differently there is very little that any device is going to do for us. If we use a tablet to download to a thumb drive to then copy to another machine we haven't really thought about what we're doing that could be transformed ... We just bought a new gadet to do the same old things. I also find the argument that any device is a cause of distraction because "the truth is we misuse them" is better answered by focusing on the user than the device. A tablet isn't responsible for you using it to download Angry Birds...but your lack of focus and understanding of how to help advance your business might be a factor that is worth exploring.

dcolbert
dcolbert

Can do all of this short of burning a DVD or connecting to a Windows Domain (and those could be done, easily enough - they just haven't, to my knowledge). But that introduces complexity, instability and battery issues. It *is* a Catch-22 for the mobile device space. There doesn't seem to be an easy answer.

dcolbert
dcolbert

I was sitting around Fox and Hound and we were all bashing on Android. I stepped outside for a minute, and grabbed my phone to do something. It was hung at the numeric lock screen, the graphics were garbled, the phone was unresponsive. I brought it back inside and showed everyone what had happened, then rebooted the phone. Afterwards, I said, "Android *IS* the Windows 95 of mobile platforms". It does so much, and it does it so well, but you've got to reboot it every couple of days to keep it running right. That is a big problem. Lots of problems come back to the stupid, resource hogging, jumpy, laggy-for-no-apparent-reason UI. The ironic thing is that there is no denying that the UI runs on top of Linux - which was allegedly the "cure" for these kind of issues. Instead, it has taken us back to 1997.

dcolbert
dcolbert

This weekend, while at the conference, I used the device almost exclusively in the "Netbook" configuration. On arriving home, I sat down to read a story my daughter wrote on the thing on the drive back from Kentucky. I was just a few words in before I detached the tablet from the keyboard dock and used it like an e-Reader. Form follows function, and the Transformer fills multiple roles without breaking a sweat. The keyboard is not built in. It is an optional accessory. Without the keyboard, you lose the USB (one advantage of the Acer Iconia, which has a full-size USB host on the tablet itself). It can *be* a Netbook, and a pretty impressive one at that. But it can also be a tablet, and there it matches the specs of all of the currently available Honeycomb tablets. It depends on how you want to use it.

dcolbert
dcolbert

First off, I can little imagine the Android OS falling into the consumer content consumption space that iOS so neatly fills today. Face it, the vast majority of iPad users are content consumers and *nothing* else. The people using iPads in the niche ways you describe are probably comparable to the number of users using the older Windows Convertibles in professional capacities. I mean, my wife users her (my) iPad to take notes at meetings - but she is doing her real work on a real PC still. Where the iPad is breaking into the enterprise, it is mostly as an executive gadget that is more about Executive Cachet than about actually productivity. I don't really know how to address this. You're all over the place, saying things in one paragraph that you basically contradict in the next. We know a few things: Android is a more capable, more open device better suited to a broader array of "Content Creation" roles than iOS. The tablet format CAN be useful for a large number of tasks outside of content consumption - provided that the device manufacturer has opened the machine to be able to easily facilitate those roles. Ultimately, you're right about some things. The tablet format is better for some roles. For others, having a keyboard and a pointer and a variety of I/O options is an advantage. The Transformer offers all of these. This is part of the reason there are so many "case/keyboard" combos for the iPad and iPad2. There is tremendous demand for a "convertible" format device among tablet owners of all makes and models. ASUS delivers the most elegant designs for this right now. I suspect we'll see more vendors follow suit.

dcolbert
dcolbert

That public perception over the rushed-to-market Xoom has affected the perception of every other Android tablet released on Honeycomb since. In particular, the tech industry started reporting negatively on Honeycomb right away, and in large volume, mostly based on the Xoom and Samsung Galaxy Tab. Both were priced poorly to compete with the iPad. The Xoom compounded those problems by not being ready for market and for dragging their feet in releasing updates until far after compelling alternatives had been released that came with functional features that Motorola had still not delivered to their early adopters. It is a "Microsoft Vista" effect. I've seen lots of tablets that didn't have insanely stupid fundamental flaws released since the Xoom - but consumers have heard two things: The Xoom was overpriced and feature crippled and Honeycomb was a mess. The rest of the Android tablets are all "fundamentally the same design, OS, and hardware specs as the Xoom - even if they're starting to be priced more reasonably". Between Motorola and Samsung rushing to market with overpriced devices that weren't quite ready for release, and the resulting bad press - consumers have turned their back on some recent Honeycomb based Android tablets that offer a very compelling set of fully-baked features for very reasonable prices. We'll see what happens during the Christmas shopping season and sales. I'm reserved about the Amazon Kindle. Even if it sells huge - I don't think that is a victory for ANDROID tablets. It is a victory for Amazon over Apple in developing their own tightly controlled ecosystems and walled gardens that strip most of the benefits of Android away to deliver a locked down consumer-friendly experience. The Kindle Fire isn't really an Android tablet as it ships - and it remains to be seen if it can be rooted to be made *into* an Android tablet. If not, the Nook color is a better Android tablet than the Fire.

dcolbert
dcolbert

This is a post from several months back. Don't let Vulpine fool you, I *love* my Transformer, and used it to live-tweet and catch up on TR and other sites during my last day at the Tech Republic Live 2011 event this weekend. It was a great tool for what I was doing. There was only one other tablet there, and all the laptop users were hungry for AC power to get them through the day. I used the device the entire 5 days I was there and when I got home today it still had 40% available at the end of the night. It is the most powerful, flexible tablet out there. But it comes up short in some important ways that Google and their partners need to address. One of the big issues is that Android apps *are* ugly. The developers need to be paying attention to what is going on and make the platform compelling - and having apps that require heavy drinking to find attractive is a huge liability when the other platforms have real lookers in their app stores.

rpollard
rpollard

I was going to say the same thing that you said. Well put! I also think he should refrain from guessing at what the sales ratios are since he really didn't have a clue. Seems like he should just stick with a laptop since it seems all he is using it for is to transfer stuff to a computer he can actually use.

dcolbert
dcolbert

First off, every blog you've read is either working with sales numbers for tablets that are a quarter behind, or speculative conjecture about what the most current data will look like when it arrives. Informed projection based on analysis of market trends is a pretty standard practice. The numbers quoted above were based on data being gathered when the original Samsung tab and the Xoom were the *only* major Android tablets on the market. Shortly thereafter, there was a flood of tablets, including both the RIM and HP tablets that were neither iOS nor Android. Those changes are likely to have a significant impact on how the numbers change from the data we had available to us at the time. Now, as we head into the Christmas season, we have even more choices - with the Android Kindle Fire coming in as yet another inexpensive alternative. Add to that a shortage of parts coming out of Asia because of the Japan earthquake, and I think that there are a lot of factors that influenced the data on tablet sales we were receiving when this blog originally posted. If any commentary on this post was clueless, I don't think it was *mine*. Second - I have a friend who was an early adopter of the iPad. He really enjoyed it for the first few months (and I felt the same way about mine). Now he says he hardly ever uses it. This is a guy who is very loyal to Apple products. But he just doesn't see a lot of case-justification for the iPad. When he first saw my Transformer, he said, "I'd probably end up using it mostly like that [transformed into a netbook configuration]". Which is fine, and it turns out he is right. The majority of my use for the Transformer is in a netbook configuration. And you know what? It does a pretty admirable job for the majority of work in this configuration. It is flexible and powerful in the model of a traditional PC-Era machine for the majority of tasks that I want to perform. These tasks are still *valid* tasks that MANY professionals want from their mobile devices - so I don't think it is silly *at all* to highlight that the ASUS is very capable of meeting those needs. But as I explained elsewhere, I was recently in a situation where someone had created some content on my Transformer (in Netbook configuration) and wanted me to review it. They handed me the device, and I began reading the document then realized that for review, a *tablet* format was far more ideal. So I detached the screen and consumed the content in a much more suitable TABLET format. This may not seem revolutionary to you, because you don't do it on a regular basis. But it is *transformative* to how we work and interface with our machines - and on portable devices, I expect it to become the de facto form factor. It makes so much sense. This is just a simple example - but I come back to this argument again and again. If you CAN do something and it inevitably adds value to the experience, what exactly is the reason you *wouldn't* do it? You're skeptics - I get it. This is emerging technology and still has rough edges. But I think we'll see more of this, not less.

Editor's Picks