When I wrote about why Android tablets did a faceplant coming out of the starting gate in 2011, the most common reaction was that I had written off Google too quickly. After all, it wasn't until Android smartphones were on the market for over a year until they really took off. Just give it more time, for crying out loud. That was the general refrain.
But, the problem with Android tablets isn't a time or maturity issue. It's that Google and all of its hardware partners are playing the wrong game and they haven't realized it yet.
Samsung, ASUS, Acer, and Toshiba -- all spurred on by Google -- seem to think that shoving hi-res cameras, USB ports, HDMI connections, quad core processors, keyboard docks, and a handful of dongles at customers will give their tablets a fundamental advantage over Apple and the iPad. "Ha!" they seem to be saying, "Look how much more our tablets can do than the iPad!"
Here's the problem. How many times have you seen someone doing a video call from a tablet? How often have you seen someone hook up a tablet to a 50-inch HDTV and use it to play HD movies and games? How many people do you know who have hooked up a keyboard to their tablet and completely ditched their laptop?
I've used virtually all of the top tablets on the market over the past two years and I've rarely done any of those things with them. I have lots of friends and colleagues with tablets and they almost never talk about doing any of those scenarios. I travel regularly and see people using tablets all the time in airports and at conferences and when I talk to them about how they use their tablets they rarely ever mention those things.
And yet, here we are again at CES 2012 with a bunch of technology companies talking about quad core CPUs and hi-res cameras in their Android tablets. These companies are still betting on the scenarios that I mentioned above, and everything that I've seen over the past year tells me that that's not how most consumers and professionals are using or want to use tablets -- beyond a handful of really smart tinkerers and technologists.
The truth is that there are much better and easier tools for video calling and watching digital content on your HDTV, and if you're a serious content creator who wants to use a tablet with a keyboard all of the time then just get an 11-inch laptop like the ASUS Zenbook or the MacBook Air where you get a much stronger set of tools but still have a tablet-esque form factor.
That's not the stuff that tablets are good at and it's not what makes people want to buy tablets. Plus, all of these high-end hardware features are really expensive and they are driving up the cost of Android tablets so that they are even more expensive to build than the iPad. And, for what? For features the masses won't use and don't want.
To make things worse, when these companies make the pitch for their tablets they almost always focus on all of the technical wizardry. And, Google certainly isn't helping the situation. Google proudly boasts that it is an engineering company. That's certainly worth being proud of, but the problem with it is that the company repeatedly makes the same mistake of thinking the rest of world thinks likes engineers (or should think like engineers). It doesn't, and it won't.
This all boils down to the fact that the technology market is no longer dominated by technology lovers. Google, Samsung, ASUS, Acer, Toshiba, and others like them need to stop acting like the PC clone makers of the 1980s and 90s, and thinking as if they're building computers for the technically-inclined. The market is a lot bigger than that today and it's now dominated by people who couldn't care less about a gigahertz or a megapixel.
Android tablets made a bet on making tablets more like traditional PCs and it failed. The sooner they realize that, the better. Android tablet makers need to change strategy and focus on the things that tablets are good at. (And, Microsoft should take note before Windows 8 tablets hit the market later this year, because they're about to make the same mistake.)
If you look at the two tablets that have succeeded -- the Apple iPad and the Amazon Kindle Fire -- both Apple and Amazon have treated their tablets as simple screens connected to powerful sets of software and services. Amazon spent a year getting its services lined up before it even launched its tablet, and that turned out to be a brilliant move.
The Kindle Fire is an utterly unimpressive piece of hardware. There's very little to it. It's heavy for its size and doesn't have any of the bells and whistles that Android tablets like the Motorola Xoom or the Toshiba Thrive or the ASUS Eee Pad Transformer have.
It's just a screen connected to a bunch of services. And, it works.
It also doesn't hurt that by getting rid of all those high-end hardware features that hardly anyone uses, Amazon was able to price the Fire at $199. Two hundred bucks is its greatest marketing strategy.
Again, when you first look at the Fire, it's not very impressive. When we got one into the TechRepublic office, the first thing we did (as always) is give it to Head Technology Editor Bill Detwiler to do a teardown and hardware analysis. Bill and I were both pretty underwhelmed by the product at first. The hardware is not nearly as impressive as something like the Galaxy Tab 10.1.
But, the real magic happens when you turn it on and sign in to your Amazon account -- especially if you've already purchased content and worked with Amazon's services. The device quickly populates with your books from Kindle, your apps from the Amazon App Store, your music from Amazon Music, your videos from Amazon Video, and your shopping information from the Amazon.com. At that point, it immediately feels like YOUR device.
Apple, of course, has its own set of software and services and had nearly all them in place with the iPhone before the iPad launched. So, from the time the iPad launched, there was lot you could do with it right out of the box. If you already had an Apple account with lots of apps, music, and media, then the experience was even better.
As I mentioned in my article on the struggle of Android tablets, price was a huge driver for the iPad when it first launched. The expectation was that it would cost $800-$1000. When it was announced at $500, a lot more people quickly got a lot more interested.
So, the two successful tablets that the masses have embraced had the same top two features going for them when they launched:
1.) A great price
2.) Services that made them immediately useful.
None of headliner tablets that are being introduced at CES 2012 have both of those things. Some of them have a great price, like the OLPC 3.0 tablet ($100) or ViewSonic's $169 Ice Cream Sandwich tablet. A few them, like the Acer are talking about services, but they don't have a comprehensive package like Amazon and Apple and they aren't putting services front-and-center in the product. That's a critical mistake, and a doesn't bode well for the destiny of most of the tablets at CES.
The issue is especially critical for Android tablets, but it will eventually become critical for Windows tablets later in the year. Both Google and Microsoft need to put the services ecosystem front and center and stop acting like we're still in a PC clone market selling products mostly to people who are interested in the technology. The market has moved on. So have Amazon and Apple, and that's why they're winning.
The good news is that Google and Microsoft both have most of the pieces already in place to drive a tablet product that revolves around services the way the Amazon Kindle Fire does. They just need to make it the central feature of their tablet play and they need that sign-in-and-all-my-stuff-appears experience. Android almost has it, but it still makes users sign in to every one of the Google apps and services individually. That's a unnecessarily disjointed user experience.
To be clear, I'm not saying that Google and Microsoft should simply mimic the same apps/books/music/videos services experience that people can already get from Apple and Amazon. Instead, they should focus on the services they already do well. For Google that means cloud apps and for Microsoft it means the enterprise. That's where they should distinguish their tablet experience -- not with mini-HDMI ports and and keyboard docks and making the argument that their tablets or more like real PCs than the iPad.
So where does that leave hardware makers like all of the ones peddling tablets at CES? They'll have to compete on design innovation, hardware that pairs with specific services, and whoever has the best integration with software and services. And, of course, price.
That means most of the ones we're seeing this week don't have much of a chance.
Jason Hiner is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the upcoming book, Follow the Geeks.