Android tablets: why the struggle stays real

In my last column, I discussed the many differentiation tactics taken by Lenovo and Samsung pro vendors many years ago. In addition to these features, both families of tablets offer bright, vibrant displays, long battery life, and fast performance (especially when using the latest Qualcomm releases).

Despite the strides that devices have made, Android tablet makers continue to battle a history of negativity. Android has never imposed the level of competition on the iPad that it introduced with the iPhone due to the chicken-and-egg problem. The lack of improved apps has made tablets less attractive; In the meantime, the reduced size of tablets provided less incentive for developers to improve. Low-income Android phone buyers were less likely to purchase a “middle device” such as a tablet. Google also did little to call out tablets as a form factor worth improving in the early days of tablets.

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Google is now taking action to make the Android experience better on large-screen devices, but tablets face an extraordinarily competitive environment. Finally, the iPad continues to dominate the market in the professional tablet category. In fact, the biggest threat to the iPad Pro’s competitive advantage comes from Apple itself in the form of the iPad Air, and it has embraced many of the best features of the Pro line.

These product lines, now distinguished by USB-C and Apple’s M-series processor, benefit from a range of creative applications. Some of the most impressive are iPad-exclusive and come from smaller developers; Examples include Pixelmator photo editor and LumaFusion Pro video editor. While Apple makes a capable version of GarageBand for the iPad, the iPadOS version of iMovie lags far behind the venerable Mac version, and despite rumors that it’s in the works, Apple hasn’t brought its professional Logic Pro or Final Cut Pro apps to the iPad.

At the other end of the iPad line, the base model offers some of the best value and utility of any Apple computing product. As Apple made more modest improvements to it, PC vendors like Dell, HP, and Acer ditched Android and refocused on Windows, bringing Chrome OS support into tablets and 2-in-1s. With the same Google dumping Android tablets – and then tablets in general – into its first-party devices

Google has improved the experience of the multi-part Android tablet app, although it can still be more nimble and intuitive. Its moves came after years of Android tablet vendors trying to fight back with a windowed desktop mode like Samsung’s DeX, which remains useful for maintaining a more familiar experience for Windows users. While the dual interfaces are odd, app compatibility with DeX on tablets has improved significantly since the feature came out, addressing longstanding issues around the lack of tablet optimization among Android apps. Moreover, the more Windows-like Android user interface is in these desktop modes, the more screen real estate is desired beyond the tablet’s 10-inch baseline.

As has been the case for laptops and Chromebooks, sales of tablets with larger screens have skyrocketed during the pandemic. And more than a decade after the release of Honeycomb, the first Android version optimized for tablets, Google is reconsidering improving the tablet with Android 12L, for which the Lenovo Tab P12 Pro has already been certified.

But the 12L’s focus also highlights Android tablet category dynamics that extend far beyond the iPad competition. The release is also intended to improve the optimization of Android apps on Chromebooks and foldable phones. As Android apps find new homes on Chrome OS and even Windows, devices running these operating systems can put more competitive pressure on Android tablets.

An important step Google can take to increase the competitiveness of Android tablets against these platforms is to commit to the full desktop Chrome app for Android, a task that must be addressed anyway to stay competitive with the improvements Apple made to Safari on iPadOS. In addition to resolving any compatibility issues, the availability of extensions will make browsing on Android devices a richer experience.

Beyond the browser, as Android apps become a lingua franca across devices as diverse as desktops and foldable phones, developers may be interested in optimizing for larger displays, which will benefit Android tablets. In any case, Samsung and Lenovo – both of which offer many devices in competitive classes – show no signs of dampening enthusiasm for the original Android menus.

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