Four Signs of Honeycomb's Rush to Compete With Apple's iPad
Now that the Motorola (MMI) Xoom is available, the first of many Google (GOOG) Honeycomb tablets is poised to battle Apple's (AAPL) iPad for consumer dollars and developer interest. There's much to like about the Xoom—see my video walkthrough and first impressions here—and the Android 3.0 operating system is growing on me as I use the new tablet. But even as I find more positive aspects, a common theme is recurring throughout the experience: a feeling of "rushed to market" for the Xoom itself and Google Honeycomb in general.
I was already concerned, given Google Android for smartphones took more than a year to mature before really becoming a force in the mobile platform wars. The immaturity of the first Android handset, a lack of apps, and mediocre hardware caused me to hold off on buying one for a long time. Here we are a few years later, and I've been using the same Android phone for nearly 14 months (a new personal record for me!) and I sold my iPad, favoring instead a smaller Android tablet. Just as I felt with Android's debut in 2008, I think it's going to take time for Honeycomb to mature and take root with consumers. Here's why:
Honeycomb isn't quite ready. Bear in mind that while Google worked on its Android tablet operating system for months prior to the official introduction earlier this February, it's a brand new fork of Android. There are new application programming interfaces (APIs) for developers, larger screens to deal with, and a complete overhaul of the user interface that's unlike the smartphone experience. Surely that takes time to build. But products shouldn't be released until the platform is rock solid: something Apple excels at. Instead, on my first day of Xoom usage, the Android Market—central to getting apps on the device—crashed several times. To Google's credit, the Market app was updated for me Wednesday night and appeared to run better Thursday. But the problem screams "rush job" to me, especially since using Honeycomb in portrait and opening the Market kicks you into landscape mode only.
There aren't many tablet apps (and here's why). Speaking of the Android Market, tablet owners looking for apps that take advantage of the larger screen won't find much to choose from. Yes, the Xoom can run nearly any of the currently available Android apps that work on smartphones, but the experience is poor in some cases. Facebook, for example, still uses tiny, smartphone-size icons, making the app look comical on a 10.1-in. screen. And some may have to squint to read tweets in the official Twitter app. But I don't fault developers. Google only released the Honeycomb development tools in a preview mode on Jan. 26, so programmers had little time to retool their apps before the Xoom tablet launch.
About that 4G upgrade. One of the Xoom's differentiating features has little to do with Google Honeycomb and everything to do with Verizon's fast mobile broadband network. The currently available device offers both Wi-Fi and 3G for connectivity, but can be upgraded to use Verizon's 4G LTE network for even faster wireless access. The upgrade is free, which is great. The method to get the upgrade: not so much. Customers will have to ship their device to Motorola and wait up to six business days for the tablet to be upgraded and returned. Whether that's down to poor planning regarding 4G radio components, radio software that wasn't ready, or a combination of factors doesn't matter. The fact remains the first tablet went on sale without a key differentiating element.
Who forgot the memory? If the 4G hardware upgrade doesn't convince you that Xoom was rushed, perhaps a more basic feature that was overlooked will have impact. In my video overview, I noted a small removable cover on the Xoom: It hides both the SIM card slot that will be used for 4G service and a microSD memory expansion slot. This type of memory slot is typical fare for Android smartphones and is even on my 7-in. Samsung Galaxy Tab Android tablet. But you can't use it until after a software upgrade that will come soon. Given that Xoom has 32 GB of internal storage, this won't be a practical problem for most consumers; however, it emphasizes Honeycomb is still a work-in-progress at this point.
So if I'm correct, and Honeycomb and the first tablets that run it are getting rushed to market, the obvious reason it's happening is to compete with Apple's iPad, which sold 14.75 million units in 2010. And with Apple's press event next week, which is expected to shed light on the next iPad and possibly new software features for iOS, I can understand the need for speed. However, some of the issues caused by cutting a few corners to launch devices could end up hurting more than helping, at least in the short term.
In the long run, there's still a challenge to face: Google's Honeycomb offers a totally new user interface, one that's far more like a computer UI than Apple's iPad is. Consumers transitioning from the popular iPhone and iPod Touch to an iPad have practically no learning curve because the operating system is shared among the different devices. Honeycomb is completely new, and even as a longtime Android owner I found myself searching for menu options and buttons the first few hours with the Xoom. That alone presents enough of a challenge to consumer adoption of Honeycomb. There's no need to make the situation worse by also rushing it to market.
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