Google I/O sidenotes: The distraction of the tablet.

Mobile May 12, 2011 No Comments

Boy, did Google ever have a lot to announce this week at Google I/O!  Every year, Google drops a ton of announcements and demos for eager developers and journalists to look at, and this year was no different. Between the two major keynotes Tuesday and Wednesday, Google announced enough new products and services to take up a week of discussion and debate.  You can find a full list of announcements on any major tech site, including this collection of links by Engadget.  Any list is going to include the following:

  • Android 3.1 Honeycomb demo
  • Android “Ice Cream Sandwich” announcement (unification of phone, tablets, and TV) for Q4 2011
  • Google Music
  • Google Video rentals
  • Android partnership with OEMs and carriers to deliver more timely updates
  • Android Open Accessory standard
  • Android@Home standards for embedding Android
  • New Chrome OS Chromebooks by Acer and Samsung
  • Netflix and offline access for Chrome OS
  • Chrome Web Store improvements (including Angry Birds)

There are some interesting stories hidden within these major announcements.  One of the most interesting points that’s gone undiscussed is that the next major version of Android, “Ice Cream Sandwhich” is targeted for Q4 2011.  That was definitely not a date set in stone, as the engineer giving the demo said they were “aiming for Q4 2011.”  This is a perfectly reasonable timeline, except when you consider that they’ve essentially admitted that Honeycomb will not run on phones and they will not be open-sourcing it. While Google cleans up the code and finishes Honeycomb, phones are running a distinctly different track that may not see any major update for the rest of the year.  That doesn’t mean that Android on phones won’t be updated.  After all, the Nexus One and Nexus S are both now receiving updates to Android 2.3.4. None of these releases will be terribly feature-packed, though, and you have to wonder why Google isn’t pushing harder to improve Android on phones.

By the time Ice Cream will likely hit, it will be about a year from the release of Android 2.3 Gingerbread.  A yearly cycle is nothing to sneeze at, of course, since that is what Apple has been on for years now.   Apple, in fact, will even miss a year by a few months as the rumors point to a fall launch of iOS5.  Still, Gingerbread is far from a polished phone operating system, and Google has shown the ability to iterate quickly in the past.  So what is different with this year’s cycle?  In short, Honeycomb and the rush to push out competitive tablets.

Google has shown the ability to have multiple projects running simultaneously.  Look no further than this year’s Google I/O for evidence of this, as Google held separate events on back-to-back days to showcase Android and Chrome OS, respectively.  When it comes to one product category, however, Google does not have unlimited resources.  The Android team can only spread itself so thin as it works on a unified solution for tablets, phones and TVs.  Considering the importance of mobile and the fiercely-competitive smartphone market, you would think that they would concentrate on improving their phones.  Instead, the Android team is now responsible for two potentially failed projects that may serve as distrations: Google TV and Android tablets.

While Google TV has been largely a bust and has the wrong approach to the living room, it needs support from the Android teams as Google soldiers on.  Furthermore, it remains to be seen if there is anything called the tablet market for Google to compete in.  Right now, it’s an iPad market, and Honeycomb has been a major misstep in the direction of Android.  There’s almost nothing compelling about a Honeycomb tablet and Apple’s positioning of the iPad has made it extremely hard to make a compelling case for a competing tablet right now.  If Google’s original purpose with Android was to ensure people would continue to use Google Search on phones and use their own services, how necessary are tablets anyway?  Is Google competing with tablets simply because Apple built one and they feel they need to chase after the same market?  What’s the end goal?

No matter what the motivation is, Honeycomb is now a learning project, as Google is not going to open-source the code and is not going to release it on phones.  Without question, Google is spending considerable time just to try and make it work on phones.  The question is, “why bother?”  What is the killer function of these Honeycomb tablets that requires a major effort to move it to phones.  And can it possibly be worth the trouble of integrating the OS, since maintaining Android’s lead in the phone market is more important?  The answer is probably no, meaning that no matter how flashy Ice Cream Sandwich looks at the end of this year, you’ll still have to ask yourself how much better it could have been.


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