As I gear up for CES 2012 next week, I can't help but think back to CES 2011 where the big story was all about Android tablets. I was in the front row at the Verizon keynote when Google made a surprise appearance and did a demo of its newly-unveiled tablet software, Android 3.0 "Honeycomb." I shot a quick video of that demo, sprinted back to my hotel room, uploaded it to the web, and it quickly went viral.
The tech world was all abuzz about Android tablets. People were yapping about the gorgeous eye candy in Google's Honeycomb demo. Motorola, ASUS, and lots of other gadget companies quickly made big, flashy CES announcements about their forthcoming Android tablets. The Apple iPad had just surprised nearly everyone by selling 15 million tablets in 2010, but the general consensus at the time was that Android was firing off a clear message: "Dear Apple: We're coming after the iPad."
On smartphones, Android had just had a huge 2010 of its own. It went from virtually zero market share in January to a third of U.S. smartphone sales by the end of the year, leapfrogging the iPhone in the process. With so many of tech's biggest hardware makers lining up behind Android tablets heading into 2011, the expectation was that Android tablets would likely leapfrog the iPad by the end of the year. At the very worst, it looked like Android tablets would pull even with the iPad and split the tablet market. Even as late as June 2011, some prominent tech commentators were still predicting that Android tablets would gobble up a huge chunk of the tablet market by the end of 2011.
It never happened.
Depending on who you believe and what exactly you count (tablets sold to retailers vs. tablets sold to customers, and whether you count Android offshoots like the Amazon Kindle Fire), Android was running on somewhere between 15% to 30% of all tablets sold in 2011. That's respectable, right? Disappointing, but respectable. However, that's not the whole story. It gets worse.
If we look at actual tablet usage, the numbers get really ugly for Android. Recent reports (like this one from ComScore) that track web traffic from tablets show that the iPad accounts for 95% of tablet traffic in the U.S. and 88% globally. That means that either Android tablet sales to paying customers are much lower than previously reported or the people who buy Android tablets aren't using them very much, or a combination of the two. Whatever the details are, it's an ugly scenario that means Android tablets have almost no traction in the market.
So, why did Android tablets flop in 2011? There are four main reasons. Let's count them down, and then talk about what 2012 looks like.
4. The 16x9 problem
Google tried to get innovative with the form factor of Android tablets by giving them a 16x9 aspect ratio instead of copying the iPad's 4x3 form factor. It sounded good. It was different. After all, 16x9 is associated with HD and 4x3 is associated with SD. The problem is that when you put a 16x9 tablet in your hands, it feels awkward. Google made landscape the default orientation so it feels like you're holding a laptop screen that's missing a keyboard, instead of holding a book or a magazine or a padfolio like it feels when you have a 10-inch 4x3 device like the iPad. When you turn a 16x9 tablet to portrait mode, the screen feels oddly squished. And now, it's going to be difficult for Google to fix the problem. The 16x9 landscape orientation is still the default in Android 4.0 and there are a ton of existing Android tablets like the Motorola Xoom and the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 and the ASUS Eee Pad Transformer that are locked into the 16x9 orientation, so even if Google did a software update, it wouldn't help.
3. The enterprise doesn't trust Android
One of the ways that Android tablets were going to move a lot of units in 2011 was large orders of 1,000s of tablets to traditional enterprises like hospitals, manufacturers, and schools. Last March I wrote about Samsung gearing up to sell a lot of Android tablets to the enterprise by setting up sales programs and preparing its sales force to handle big tablet orders. Samsung reps enthusiastically said they would contact me when they had big customers willing to talk about their tablet rollouts. I never heard from them. By mid-2011 that didn't surprise me because the IT leaders I spoke with were spooked about Android malware. The fact that users could click on browser links and accidentally sideload apps that could siphon data out of Android devices was not something IT pros wanted to deal with. As a result, surveys like the one from enterprise vendor Good Technology showed that 96% of tablet activations in the enterprise were iPads.
2. The lack of tablet apps
Despite the 16x9 problem (and Honeycomb's initial software glitches that Google eventually ironed out), the Android tablet platform itself isn't all bad. I like running widgets and mini-apps side-by-side, for example. That makes Android tablets feel more like a traditional multi-tasking computer. The built-in Gmail, Google Books, and web browser apps in Honeycomb are really slick -- I especially like the thumb controls in the browser. The problem is that there just isn't enough of this stuff. Google has not created enough of its own apps and third party software developers have hit the snooze button on Android tablet apps. Where's the Google Analytics app or its Google+ app or its Google Finance app or its Picnik photo editing app? Instead of building its own native Android tablet apps and firing up software makers, Google seems intent on focusing app developers on building HTML5 apps that work well across tablets, smartphones, and computers. That's an important and admirable goal, but dedicated apps can still be extremely useful for taking advantage of a platform's strengths. And the bottom line is that users like the simplicity and focus of having an app that they can tap and enter a dedicated environment for a particular service. Google doesn't get that, doesn't like it, and hasn't pushed for it on Android tablets. The result is that Android tablets just don't feel like they're useful for doing much besides surfing the web.
1. The price
When Apple first announced the iPad, I had honestly started tuning out by end of the event (there's only so much of that "magical" and "revolutionary" stuff I can stomach). I was ready to write an article excoriating the iPad as a badly-overpriced toddler toy when Steve Jobs announced that the price of the iPad would start at $499 (I'd expected the price tag to be $800-$1000). I immediately bolted straight up in my seat and my eyes popped open and Apple had my attention again. To this day, I believe that the iPad's greatest marketing strategy and the No. 1 factor in its success has been its price tag. Conversely, when Google and Motorola announced that the first big Android tablet -- the Motorola Xoom -- would cost $800, my immediate reaction was to shake my head and say, "DOA." At the time, other tech analysts tried to argue that what you got for the price with the Xoom compared very favorably to the highest-priced iPad. It was a logical argument but that's not how most of today's tech buyers think, and the proof is that virtually no one bought the Xoom. Eventually, other tablet makers rolled out some nice Android tablets for $400-$500 by the middle of 2011 -- again, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 and ASUS Eee Pad Transformer are both very attractive -- but to the masses, that price tag was apparently still too much for tablets whose primary function is surfing the web.
Even Google's own numbers don't paint a pretty picture for Android tablets, and the release of Android 4.0 "Ice Cream Sandwich" is unlikely to help the situation much in 2012. ICS is't about fixing the tablet problem. It's about unifying the Android experience between smartphones and tablets. My ZDNet colleague Jason Perlow has been testing Ice Cream Sandwich on the Motorola Xoom and has concluded that it won't fix any of these fundamental flaws with Android tablets.
Last month Google Chairman Eric Schmidt said that Google will "market a tablet of the highest quality” in the first half of 2012. It's also been rumored recently that Google is working on a low-cost 7-inch tablet to battle the Amazon Kindle Fire, which runs a bastardized version of Android 2.3 and quickly grabbed the No. 2 spot in the tablet market at the end of 2011.
However, until Google deals with the four issues we've talked about here, it's unlikely that it will change the fate of Android tablets. At the very least, Google will have to fix No. 1 and No. 2, and that might be enough to overcome No. 3 and No. 4.
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.