Why a tablet victory for Android is problematic for Free Software
by Glyn Moody
As RIM quietly implodes and Microsoft Windows Phone goes nowhere, the smartphone sector is turning into a neatly symbolic battle between the honed but closed iPhone and the messy, mostly open Android. Aside from its intrinsic importance, that pattern is significant because it prefigures what will happen in the world of tablets, which seem increasingly likely to emerge as the successors to the currently-dominant desktops.
At the moment, that parallel split between closed iPads and a range of Android-based tablets is not so evident. Only the Amazon Kindle has had any success against Apple's dominance here, and even that lies somewhat outside the Android mainstream, both in terms of its intended market and the fact that it's a fork.
But the announcement of Google's Nexus 7 looks likely to shake things up dramatically. It's the first Android tablet that has received almost unanimously rave reviews; more importantly, it's the first such system that seems to have provoked a feeling of "I must have one" among large numbers of buyers, judging by online comments.
One complicating factor is that the Nexus 7 is not directly comparable with the iPad because of its size: it's hard to tell whether the enthusiasm for it comes from the fact that Apple doesn't offer a smaller model, or whether people genuinely desire it for what it is. We may find out soon, if the rumours about an iPad Mini prove true. It is also not unreasonable to expect that Google will come out with a full-on iPad competitor if the Nexus 7 goes down well.
At that point, we will have an interesting battle between the open and closed worlds of Android and iOS. Some people think that Apple has already won that battle, and that even attractive models like the Nexus 7 will be unable to wrest significant market share from it. Others might point out that this was exactly the situation when Android entered the smartphone sector, and look what happened there.
That's going to be an interesting battle, but I think there's another one that Android has pretty much won already. I'm talking about the extremely low-cost tablets that you can now buy – here's one I came across recently: "ICOO D50 Lite A13 Version Android 4.0 Tablet PC 7 Inch 4GB Camera White". I've no idea what it's like, but that's beside the point. The fact that *already* companies are offering tablets for less than £50 means that quality and capabilities will rise with time (and that prices may drop further.)
What's crucial here is the fact that Apple will never be able to compete in this sector: its entire business model is based on top-quality, premium-priced models. Even if it could produce a cheapo version it almost certainly wouldn't, because it would damage its brand. Android has no such problems, since it seems to be accepted as a generic description for a family of products, rather than a well-defined brand in itself.
Of course, you could argue that there's a very good reason why Apple doesn't produce such low-end products: there's no money in them because the margins are so thin – which is true. But that doesn't mean that there will be no market for something very like them. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that such low-cost devices could be the basis of some highly-profitable businesses thanks to another key feature of Android: its customisability.