Why Do Android Tablets Tank, While Android Smartphones Surge?

Sony once again announced its Android tablets this week, joining pretty much every major PC maker in announcing -- but not actually shipping -- Android tablets based on the Google Android "Honeycomb" 3.0 OS. The same week, yet another investor analyst reported that sales of the first Honeycomb tablet, the respectable Motorola Mobility Xoom, may have sold as few as 25,000 units. (Motorola Mobility says it shipped 250,000, but that means how many it sent to stores, not how many they sold.) Compare this number to 2.5 million sold in a shorter period for the iPad 2, which Apple could not make enough of and, thus, sold fewer than expected. One particularly vulturish investment analyst even suggested Motorola start suing other Android makers over patents to make money, rather than rely on the sales of Android tablets themselves.

Meanwhile, sales of Android smartphones continued to surge; most analyst firms predicted Android handsets will account for half of all smartphone sales in the United States by year's end, up from about 30 percent today, and become the undisputed smartphone champ. The iPhone, by contrast, would remain flat and account for around 25 to 30 percent of smartphones sold, RIM BlackBerrys would be in the 10 to 15 percent range, and everyone else would be irrelevant. Even enterprises are predicted to see an Android smartphone majority this year.

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Why are Android tablets tanking while Android smartphones explode? You can't just blame the iPad, because the iPhone isn't enjoying the same relative success against Android smartphones as the iPad is against the Xoom. Yet, generally speaking, the quality gap is no different.

There are several theories floating around, none satisfying given the huge Android fan base, the large number of Apple haters out there, and the lack of other tablets to choose instead. Face it -- hardly anyone will choose the RIM BlackBerry PlayBook given how disastrous that product turned out to be, and you don't see any evidence that people are rethinking their aversion to Windows tablets.

One theory is that the iPad 2 is so obviously superior that no one -- not even a fandroid -- can resist the Apple tablet. Superior it is, but fanboys are by definition hard-core devotees, not fair-weather friends. I just don't see a massive religious conversion occurring, especially among those who have legitimate issues with Apple's control over the platform and users (via iTunes and the App Store). Meanwhile, these same folks remain in thrall to every Android smartphone rumor, as Apple fanboys are to iPhone rumors.

Another theory is they're waiting for the flood of promised Android tablets before they put down their $500 to $900. Maybe, but there should be a lot more fandroids willing to get the first, respectable Android tablet today (the $600 Xoom) rather than wait until summer or fall for the promised devices -- especially considering the similarity in their specs.

A third theory is that Apple sneakily bought up all the key components at discount in its confidence about the iPad 2's success. As a result, Android makers and other competitors are forced to charge more than Apple for feature-equivalent products -- forcing users to wait until prices are more closely aligned.

A fourth theory is that would-be Android tablet buyers are simply slower on the draw than iPad buyers. They didn't jump onto iPhones in that device's first three years but waited until Year 4 (2010) of the smartphone phenomenon to join in. They'll wait out another stretch before buying a tablet because it's still too early to go there.

Google's own behavior may encourage such slow motion: It made devicemakers wait a year after the iPad to get its own tablet OS, causing many vendors to release ill-advised smartphone-based devices for the holidays. Even now, its pace is glacial in updating and releasing Honeycomb. Google has also made no effort to outflank Apple, following Apple's lead in almost every area instead (voice-based search and navigation being the major exceptions).

The theory that makes the most sense to me comes fromt Doug Dineley, InfoWorld's Test Center director: Android tablets aren't competing with iPads, but with laptops and netbooks. An iPad is a computer, with lots and lots of apps that do real things. iPad users tend to see their tablets as "+1" devices to carry around for communicating, Web surfing, entertaining, and some work -- but most have their PCs or Macs at home, at the office, or at the hotel room for heavy-duty tasks.

Netbook owners usually view their devices in the same light, and some even have decent battery life, reducing concerns about charging the computer at crucial moments. Certainly, iPad haters have been known to sneer, "Why use an iPad when you can use a real computer (a netbook or laptop)?" If they really believe that -- I suspect they do -- then the same complaint applies to all tablets.

In fact, in the last week I heard exactly that from many of the RIM fanboys upset that I bluntly criticized the BlackBerry PlayBook tablet for its many failings: It's OK, they said, that the PlayBook doesn't do very much or very well because, after all, that's what a computer is for. Windows tablet fanboys (yes, there are some, mainly in government) say the same thing.

Maybe those attracted to the iPad think different about computing, and those who think different about computing are attracted to the iPad. Those who see computing as the same old same old and tablets as basically keyboardless laptops won't go for any tablet, even if they love their Android smartphone (or BlackBerry).

That would explain the vast gulf between Android smartphones' success and Android tablets' landing with a thud, even with attempts at iPad differentiation such as sporting a (buggy) Flash player and, in what All Things D's Walt Mossberg calls a "parlor trick," 3D, as seen in the $750, 9-inch LG G-Slate.

A smartphone replaces a cellphone, not augments it. A tablet augments a laptop and rarely replaces it completely, unless you view a tablet as a compromised laptop. If that's the case, the Android tablet makers have a big problem. It's a good thing many of them also make laptops and netbooks.

This article, "The Android conundrum: Why tablets tank, smartphones surge," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Galen Gruman's Mobile Edge blog and follow the latest developments in mobile technology at InfoWorld.com. Follow Galen's mobile musings on Twitter at MobileGalen. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

This story, "Why Do Android Tablets Tank, While Android Smartphones Surge?" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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