A couple of weeks ago you may have read Scott’s opinion piece on Android Tablets. I suppose you might consider this story to be a bit of a counterpiece to Scott’s, and what you see above — the Google Pixel C — is probably the last half-decent Android tablet we’ll ever see, and here’s why.
This is something I’ve been thinking about since I edited Scott’s story, and reading a few pieces around the web over the last week, I’ve solidified in my opinion; the time of the tablet has passed. In fact, I’m not sure there ever really was a time of the tablet, especially insofar as Android was concerned, but even if there was, it’s gone.
Tablets arrived, and we wondered what they were for
Tablets have been around since about 1993 with the advent of the Apple Newton. While there were people who liked it, I think it’s fair to say the device mostly wasn’t that great. It was undoubtedly before its time, and could equally be considered as much a PDA as a tablet in the more modern sense. Since the Newton, various companies towards the late 90s and early 00s tried to convince us that tablets would be the future, that we could break away from the confines of our desktop PCs and compute on the go with tablets. A wonderful idea, idyllic perhaps, except it just never really took off.
Apple hit a vein of gold with the iPad, but if you put what you know about the iPad to one side, one must wonder why the iPad took off. Was it something that we needed? Did it offer something so unique and so incredible for productivity that we simply had to have it? Was it the replacement for the desktop and laptop that we’d been promised for so long?
Was the iPad the panacea?
Well, no, it wasn’t. The iPad was basically a big iPhone; it was a touch-screen with no keyboard, no mouse, no pointing device at all (beyond your finger), no ability to access really any peripherals, and the same locked down OS that iPhones enjoyed. Was the iPad truly an on-the-go productivity machine? You’d have to say that mostly, the answer was no. You could read your emails on it, browse the web, consume content, and probably even generate a little bit, but for serious content creation, human-kind hasn’t really come up with anything better than the keyboard.
And thus a range of keyboard accessories started to show up, mainly for iPads, but after a fashion it was a trend that caught on in Android land as well. Early Android tablets were — let’s not kid ourselves — hopeless.
Android 3.0 Honeycomb was awful, and the tablets that ran it were equally awful, and yet the whole experience was several orders of magnitude worse than the iPad.
Early Android tablets were worse
Whereas Apple (and the developers who supported its platform) had done a reasonable job of getting many apps iPad-compatible, Android suffered a much worse fate. In fact, most Android apps either didn’t work on tablets at all, or worked so badly that they left you wondering why you’d bothered. Better yet, this situation didn’t change for years.
So, what did we have? Tablets that promised to be the productivity replacements we were looking for, that weren’t, and that promised so much in terms of rich apps and wonderful experiences, that didn’t deliver. Samsung made tablet after tablet, and while they (later) developed a fair amount of talent in this endeavour, their early tablets were not great either. In fact, Android tablets really didn’t get to be anywhere near good until the Nexus 7 (2012), and they got a whole lot better the next year with the Nexus 7 (2013).
From there, they went downhill. We had high hopes from the two successful Nexus tablets, but every other Nexus tablet sucked. The Nexus 10? Awful. HTC’s Nexus 9? Generally not great. In fact, after 2013, there were really only very few tablets that were considered good, and even then, they really didn’t deliver on the promise of tablets.
A glimmer of hope, but too late
Samsung had some success with the Tab S range, Sony’s Xperia Z3 Tablet range was alright, and there were some other gems around, but the underlying issues remained:
- Android was not designed first and foremost for tablets, and the motif generally just didn’t work as neatly as it should.
- Tablet productivity remained elusive; keyboard accessories were third party options that often didn’t work or fit properly, and first party keyboards were stupidly expensive.
- The app experienced remained mostly poor; even among Google’s own first-party apps, there were those that just didn’t work nicely on tablets.
When we got to the end of 2015, we saw a glimmer of promise, but perhaps we should’ve realised that the ship had already sailed. For the price of a half-decent tablet, you could buy a half-decent laptop or ultrabook that wasn’t much bigger, and was infinitely more useful. A desktop-quality OS, keyboard, trackpad/mouse, a tonne of storage, Microsoft Office apps, USB connectivity, external display options… the list goes on.
Basically you had two competing product lines – a slate that had a display on one side, and precious little else, and a clamshell ultrabook about the same size that did significantly more, and either cost about the same, or only a little bit more.
Could the Pixel C save the Android tablet?
The Pixel C was marketed as almost a hybrid of the two; a tablet, with an optional keyboard accessory that made it into kind of a laptop, an on-the-go productivity tool, if you will, even though the keyboard cost extra. I used the Pixel C extensively. I wanted it to be great, and while it was technically good, it just wasn’t as useful as it could have been.
I found myself eschewing it for two main reasons:
- Despite having a keyboard, Android just didn’t make for a good productivity platform – genuine multi-window multitasking that we take for granted on a laptop or desktop is impossible.
- A touchscreen is great, but it seriously interrupts your typing flow if you have to use it where a mouse or trackpad would be better.
What would’ve made the Pixel C great was if it had launched with ChromeOS, as was originally planned. It would’ve been that crossover with a laptop that it needed to be to be really successful, and it would’ve crossed into the territory which 2016 became known for; the 2-in-1. Unfortunately, it didn’t do any of those things, and so the Pixel C went the way of most other tablets — it went nowhere.
The arrival of the 2-in-1 (the foldable laptop/ultrabook-come-tablet thing) really put the final nail in the coffin of the tablet, after the tablet had put the rest of the nails in itself. What the tablet had remained good at was consuming media in an easily-holdable form factor, but it wasn’t much good at anything else. Re-born as a 2-in-1, the tablet suddenly both ceased to exist and became useful.
The 2-in-1 has taken over
Why buy a tablet that could do a few useful things (and I do mean few) when you could spend a little extra, grab a decent 2-in-1, and replace your useless tablet, outdated laptop and even your desktop setup? Things like Microsoft’s Surface do this (admittedly, at a cost), Lenovo have a range of 2-in-1’s, ASUS do now as well, and there are many others (though perhaps these three brands make the better ones).
While all this goes on, the tablet market disintegrated. As Scott noted, 2016 saw the release of precisely zero tablets worthy of mention, with one plausible exception in an updated MediaPad from Huawei. The segment is all but dead; go into a JB HiFi, and look how many 2-in-1 type devices there are, and how few tablets are there … better yet, hang around a little while and you’ll see 2-in-1’s selling, and tablets sitting there gathering dust.
Could this be turned around by the advent of the rumoured Andromeda, the Android/Chrome hybrid? If you follow my argument in this piece, the answer has to be no, not by itself. A slate-like tablet that is only a tablet is fundamentally not all that useful, at least with current technology.
An Andromeda-powered 2-in-1 type device though? I would buy one in a heartbeat. Not only would it replace my aging laptop for all but the heaviest of lifting, but it would provide the few benefits that a tablet does too; something good to watch movies on when flying or on the train, to draw on with a stylus, and to use in a tablet-like mode for browsing news or media on the couch. For everything else, the 2-in-1 can flip into its laptop guise and become genuinely useful.
I believe, based only on rumours that I’ve read, that Andromeda could – if paired with intelligent hardware designed for productive use on the go – could start to take a sizable chunk of the 2-in-1 market. ChromeOS is already quite capable, but lacks many of the native applications you’d expect a desktop-style OS to have. The marriage with Android would fix much of this, as we’ve started to see in Chrome devices which include Android apps now.
The tablet as we know it might not have much of a future, but Android as a platform for mobile productivity might still come to pass.