A little over one year ago, Google did what many of us expected them to do: announce Android app support in Chrome OS. As is the case with every Google announcement, this was in early beta stages and would not release to consumers for a few months.
Still though, there was hope — hope for Android, or at least part of Android, to thrive on a maturing ecosystem where the woes of the failure of its tablet ventures would not inhibit future growth as it currently does. Rumors only ignited our wishes by teasing us with a future where Chrome OS and Android would converge, propelling Google towards a new market of hybrid devices.
“The phone is dead”, is a phrase that gets thrown around quite a bit, and I strongly disagree with it; however, there is no objection that phones just are not quite as exciting as they once were. No matter how large of a display you put on a phone, at the end of a day it is still a phone and there is only so much productivity you can accomplish on such form factor. So to “get things done”, many users have resorted to multiple devices, with the second being a productivity-focused but user-friendly device that can both travel with them, and act as a work station of sorts. Here is where the market diverges from everyone having a phone to some people steering towards cheap Android tablets and iPads, others towards a 2-1 or Microsoft Surface device, and some to Chromebooks. But each of these come with their own caveats.
If you choose a Chromebook, you have no application support outside of Chrome Web Apps, which have their usefulness but have certainly not turned out to be quite as robust and mainstream as Google would have hoped. When it comes to productivity you have the Google productivity suite in Drive which is excellent, but honestly outside of productivity and web browsing Chrome OS is just boring, unless you start customizing it with Linux. Google has tried to fix this with the aforementioned Android apps for Chrome OS, but after 1 year now Google has still to deliver anything resembling stable enough for the mainstream, and the project is still broken. Further, even if Android apps were stable and you had the ease of use of Chrome OS but you want a tablet-first experience, you are out of luck as no such Chrome OS device exists.
The best Android tablet was never the best tablet.
If you look at the Android tablet market, or lack thereof, you will be similarly distraught as the only somewhat-decent mainstream device you can buy is the recently announced Samsung Tab S3, the tablet virtually everyone forgot about already, but that’s only 4 months old. It does not get any better when you look at the software either, as calling Android poorly-optimized for large screen devices is doing it a justice. This does not just apply to the applications either, the entire operating system has gradually shifted away from being optimized for large format devices, except for some slight, mostly-cosmetic UI enhancements that honestly feel like a slap in the face when you look at the larger less efficient changes. To Google’s credit, they are making strides in this capacity with Android Nougat and the upcoming O update, but it may just be a case of too little too late at this point.
Recommended Reading: The Misfortunate Pixel C: A Gigantically Insufficient Leap for Android Tablets
Users like myself who have owned Android tablets since nearly day 1 have been burned time and time again by promises of better support and better applications, but one look at the barren wasteland of Android “tablet apps” and poor optimization reveals they are just empty promises that Google has not backed up or supported. Maybe October will finally bring a Chrome OS or Android Tablet that can do what the Pixel did for Google’s line of phones, but the Pixel C was supposed to be that tablet nearly 2 years ago, and it has had no impact on the ecosystem at large.
Microsoft however, has been perfecting its Surface brand for the last 5 years. They initially hinged its mainstream future on the mistake that was Surface RT, only to fall back to fully embracing its well developed x86 market and offering older Surface devices at discounted prices better suited to attract the common tablet purchaser. The Surface brand is a productivity juggernaut offering everything Chrome OS does, plus the flexibility of decades of legacy software and development. It’s detachable tablet system and full keyboard array is the perfect balance of on the go, and sit at a desk and get things done. When in laptop mode it works like a laptop and when in tablet mode, it has a touchscreen… and where Windows falls flat on its face, 5ft from the starting point. The Windows store is a barren wasteland where 1st party applications simply don’t exist, and just about everything sucks.
With all its flaws, a Surface still offers a better tablet experience than Android
One of the Surface line’s strengths. legacy applications, is one of its biggest hindrances in tablet mode, with even worse optimization than Android apps on tablets. Some apps do not recognize the touch keyboard and while you can always summon it manually it just covers most of the content with no reflowing or resizing, and this occurs on so-called UWP applications. Other mainly legacy applications, are so small that using them is a test of micro precision and others are so slow you might as well grab your phone and do it there. The problem with Surface, is that unless you spring northward of $1,299, your experience will be severely limited. Even with the top line models, they all suffer if you plan to use it as a tablet, with tablet ease of use, in a tablety way. With the keyboard it is a productivity monster, but little of that transfers when it is disconnected. And even then, it can still do the basic things Android tablets just as well with the right apps, and then everything else a desktop can do but with a touchscreen (and a little bit of patience).
An Actual iPad Pro
Apple has placed its prospects in this space on the iPad, which would be the polar opposite of what Microsoft is accomplishing with the Surface. Where the Surface offers little in terms of its use as a tablet, outside of offering a touchscreen experience, the iPad is the reigning king of the space… but where the Surface shines in productivity the iPad falls far behind. But Apple knows this, and instead of doing what many of us might have hoped for and offered a MacOS-powered iPad, they instead are slowly turning iOS into MacOS for this large form factor. Switching applications quickly and using multiple applications at one time was not a strong point for the iPad until just last year, and even to this day the interface still feels like a phone trying to do more than it was designed to do. Apple is changing this in a large way with iOS 11 though, by offering a more robust multi-tasking system that allows you to not only see more, but do more.
The addition of the MacOS style dock that supports recently run, and docked applications and folders looks to be the starting point of replacing the need to ever use the poorly-scaled home screen. Apple paid special attention to how multi-screen applications should work, and while there is room for improvement as far as free scaling applications goes, this workflow that Apple is offering works for many cases that a tablet or small laptop is used for. Drag and drop, quick shortcuts with a keyboard, and a solid near-desktop-class browser round out a compelling package. You can have multiple applications at once, in split-screen, free-form, or a combination (for 3 applications at once), all working together with intuitive controls that are very-clearly designed with tablets in mind. It looks smooth and fluid, and will surely be enhanced by the 120hz display of the new iPad Pro.
The icing on the cake, though, is the Files manager. Crazy, right? Apple has been (rightfully) mocked for years for ignoring such feature, yet now that it’s here, it’s a perfect implementation for their touchscreen device. If this system works like the demos are displaying, it stands to upend everything we know about iOS being limited from a productivity standpoint. Support for multiple file sources like Dropbox and Google Drive are enhanced with the native file system that looks to allow out-of-application storage and support various programs, and not just Apple’s own services which are quite lacking. Productivity has always been Apple’s Achilles’ heel when it came to the iPad, no matter how hard the user tried to make it work, work was always held back. That changes with iOS11 and if Apple’s focus at WWDC and the media feedback is anything to look at, this is going to be a very exciting space to keep an eye on as we see the convergence of the best tablet experience with seriously enhanced productivity
Do or Die
Google is in a tight spot, as they’ve ignored their tablet platform for years, in turn stunting the growth of both Android in larger form factors, and the tablet space as a whole. A tablet-optimized Android with navigation and multi-tasking features like those iOS currently has, would at least better-entice customers and perhaps bring back some fire to the tablet space. However, it is Microsoft and Apple who are truly (and finally) innovating by absolutely exploiting the convergence of their mobile and desktop platforms. The iPad is increasingly-resembling MacOS, while Microsoft intends mobile devices to converge with Windows desktops through both a continuous design language, and Continuum as a platform. We’ve gotten to the point where both Microsoft and Apple have met their desired targets: one offers a tablet that’s now able to serve as a productivity device, while the other offers a productivity device that doubles as a tablet. Both come with their strengths and flaws, sure — but strengths they have, while Google has absolutely nothing we can look forward to beyond the cosmetic or inconsequential, with no clear path towards the unraveling future of computing in enterprise and education, which clearly resides in these hybrid setups.
In effect, moving navigation buttons to the sides or altering the recents menu just won’t cut it. Look a few years back, when three tablet heavy weights duked it out for dominance — Surface Pro vs. iPad Pro vs. Pixel C. Not only was the Pixel C dead last in every respect, but Google has been left in the dust because virtually nothing has changed since, while Microsoft’s Creators’ Update further enhanced their Surface devices, and this new iPad Pro release makes on-the-go simple productivity intuitive and manageable on a large touchscreen. We can’t overstate how key that last bit is — for years, tablets have been held back by their inability to multi-task, manage files, and share files or information across services in an intuitive, touch-friendly way, and Apple just managed to figure that out while we still can’t see proper freeform support on Android, let alone a healthy repertoire of tablet apps.
With Andromeda being supposedly shelved, what’s left for Google? The tablet space might have been in dire need of saving, but there is certainly a renaissance with the boom of hybrid devices spearheaded by Microsoft, and now being co-opted by Apple. Android tablets were good enough for media consumption, the primordial paradigm of tablets up until very recently. Now, Google’s competitors are showing us that tablets can be used for productivity, and that tablet user interfaces can lend themselves to more-advanced use-cases with the right design and navigation techniques baked into the software. With ARM support for Windows, for example, we’ll likely see Microsoft’s vision of hybrid computers expand to new horizons, while Apple’s software solution can reach not only millions of new companies, but also current iPad users. Maybe a Pixel tablet is needed, or maybe further convergence between ChromeOS and Android, but one thing is certain: Google has made no moves in a sleeper market that’s being reaped to exhaustion by its competition, and if the company doesn’t act swiftly, it might be missing a hell of an opportunity.
What do you think Google should do about tablets? Leave a comment and discuss with us!
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