So there you have it. Google will release its own tablet to steal a piece of the iPad pie. Lately, it seems, Google puts quite a bit of effort into annoying Apple. Conceivably, Google has already become the new Microsoft by trying to be everything to everyone and this upcoming tablet may just be another example of how Google is much more a content provider than a hardware company. But there is also a real chance that Google can succeed and beat Apple’s iPad—the iPad isn’t as new and magical as Apple claims it is and it has weaknesses. Google has all the necessary pieces in place. So what if Google gets it right?
The tablet PC business is probably one of the most attractive unlocked secrets in the IT industry. It isn’t as innovative and groundbreaking as Apple says it is. There is a history of innovation and failure. Think about the Webpads of the early 2000s, some of which were actually quite good for their time, and I would even point to Alan Kay’s vision of the Dynabook in 1972, which really should be considered as the origin of the Webpad. It is also interesting to note that the first Dynabook model and the design of the first tablet PCs were developed by the same guy, Chuck Thacker. What we are seeing today are more and more companies taking stabs at the tablet opportunity. They are simply improving previous concepts that haven’t worked well in the past.
As much as Steve Jobs touts the iPad as the most important product he has ever created, it is just another typical Apple product that refines, admittedly in an impressive way, what we have had before. However, in the case of the iPad, there is an enormous range of weaknesses in the concept of the product that may limit the growth potential and excitement for the device. And no, I don’t necessarily point to the lack of Flash support or the missing Webcam. If Alan Kay’s software vision is as accurate as his hardware vision already has been, then Apple’s walled garden and, excuse my frank words, promotion of user laziness by pushing the App Store, may be Google’s biggest opportunity to take down the iPad. Ultimately, the Google tablet may have to be a much better Dynabook copycat than the iPad is.
Open vs. Locked Down
Obviously, the ability to download virtually any application you could ever think of from a directly connected App Store is a huge convenience factor for the iPad. It caters to the expectation that a computing device should just work, no questions asked. We have learned that computers are a relatively cheap commodity and we don’t put that much effort anymore into making them do things that are special to us as individuals. And even if you wanted to create that special script or application, your choices are limited with the iPad. It isn’t particularly easy for a general user to come up with a customized application, and even if you figure out how to do it, Apple tells you what you can and cannot do.
What if Apple’s greatest growth opportunity today, the App Store, could become a major annoyance and the foundation of a rather fragile product in the future? An opportunity that can be attacked and taken down by a powerful competitor as soon as users needs change.
Google’s strategy can only be an open platform that is exactly the opposite of Apple’s approach to highlight the weaknesses of the iPad. And if you think about it, Google has all the right pieces in place. Think cloud computing. Think Google Docs, for example. Google can offer plenty of music and video content and I don’t think that Google would have a problem striking a book deal with Amazon or Barnes & Noble that would blow Apple’s iBook store out of the water. And then there is Flash, which I personally doubt will just die simply because Apple says so. There’s a wealth of flash content out there, especially in the entertainment segment, which would be a major advantage for the Google tablet.
You only would lock that content out of your products if it is poison to your business strategy. Flash goes against the concept and monetization strategy of the App Store, but it works very well for Google.
However, Flash may not be enough for Google. I would agree with Kay that a mainstream computing device should be easily programmable to adapt to certain scenarios when you want it to. Imagine a visual programming language that would enable you to create simple applications to perform very specialized tasks. These tasks could be used around your house in a scenario of smart appliances. Imagine a modern version of Apple’s abandoned Hypercard programming environment or even Squeak. The true potential of the tablet may lie in its mobility and flexibility and this flexibility can only be achieved through an open interface. Google should take a serious look at making its tablet programmable, while keeping the convenience of the Android Marketplace available at all times.
Entertainment Device vs. Social Communication
Another key differentiator between the iPad and a Google tablet could be social networking. We can’t really ignore this trend and it is somewhat surprising how Apple misses the mark on this one. Microsoft’s Kin phones are a first indication of how portable devices can be much more portable and can cater to the information needs of teenagers and young adults. Imagine an always-connected device that integrates all types of communication, including VoIP telephony over Facebook messaging, tweeting, chatting, and even telepresence. Imagine 3D audio services such as Mingleverse on a tablet and you could see an entirely new way of immersive communication that only a connected tablet could enable.
Apple completely ignores opportunities in social networking and advanced communication and this trend may be another huge opportunity for Google to design and launch something much better than the iPad.
That said, the Google tablet, of course, needs to be a great entertainment device with substantial hardware horsepower as well. Getting content to the tablet may require some investment, but there is a true opportunity for Google to challenge the iPad on the hardware side. Intel isn’t really happy that Apple has ignored the Atom processor for the iPad, and if my sources are correct, then Intel is accelerating its efforts to turn Atom and especially its graphics features into a much more capable product in the near future. Intel is under pressure and we have seen in the past that Intel creates its most impressive products when challenged to the core. There is an unusually attractive opportunity for Google to collaborate with Intel to equip the Google tablet with hardware that may be superior to Apple’s A4 chip. And Intel isn’t the only company that would wait in line to work with Google.
The Open Road to Success
The iPad isn’t perfect. The Google tablet won’t be perfect. But Google needs to be different and it does not hurt to look into the past of personal computing to see what has worked in the past and what has not. Convenience is what most users are attracted to, but choice is Google’s biggest opportunity to show users how limited the iPad really is. Google has a true chance to inject excitement into computing again. Let’s hope the Google tablet will be a great copycat of the tablet vision and not just a copycat of the iPad.
Wolfgang Gruener is a technology journalist and analyst. He was managing editor for the Tom’s Hardware news section from 2003 to 2005, before launching and acquiring TG Daily. Today, Wolfgang works with startups and publishes his thoughts and analysis on critical and emerging technologies and products at Conceivablytech.com.