It’s no secret that I like iPads. But what I really care about are tablets. I spend enough time chained to a desk – note to self: question new Stuff editor’s workplace rules – gawping at a traditional computer, and so don’t want to spend free time using a similar set-up.
A tablet, though, frees you from computing conventions and opens up exciting possibilities for everything from creative pursuits to gaming. At least, an Apple tablet does, because what’s arrived from the Android camp has, comparatively, been hot garbage.
As Google I/O ’22 swept into town, a surprise sneak peek of the upcoming Google Pixel Tablet had Android advocates enthusing that they, finally, would get some full-fat premium tablet goodness. They shouldn’t hold their breath.
My cynicism doesn’t stem from the device’s design – although it does look weirdly dated, like a plastic concoction hurled through a wormhole from 2014. And it doesn’t stem from the tech. Google was cagey on specs, but we heard the tablet would be powered by Google Tensor, and so have plenty of clout. It’s also being designed to be “the most helpful tablet in the world” and a companion to a Pixel phone.
The inference here is the Google Pixel Tablet will have a strong cross-device handover game, and be genuinely useful as a digital assistant in much the way that Siri isn’t. And there were other plusses: a smart connector for keyboards, and a selfie cam on the long edge, because – unlike Apple – Google wants you to look like you’re paying attention during video calls, rather than blithely looking off to one side.
But then none of this is new – we’ve seen plenty of powerful, sleek Android tablets before.
The problem is everything else. Modern mobile devices are a blank slate. If they can’t become something engaging, exciting and different, it’s hard to justify buying anything more than a cheapo Kindle Fire to use for a bit of Netflix, doom scrolling, and endlessly getting annoyed at Wordle using another obscure word precisely seven people in history have ever uttered.
In short, the software and app ecosystem don’t cut it. Android has made some inroads on the former, ripping off bits of iPadOS and Samsung’s take on Android to add a task bar, split screen, and drag and drop. And Google is urging developers to make responsive layouts, asking them to think about “what it takes to build a quality experience for large screens”. The company is also optimising over 20 of its own apps for tablets.
Google had better hope developers get on board this time, though, because history shows first-party enthusiasm is not enough. (If it was, Windows Phone would still exist.) But history has also shown that, when the opportunity presents itself, developers look at whether or not to make amazing tablet apps for Android – and invariably decide on ‘not’.
Why? According to those I speak to, there are various reasons, but the main one is money. Android owners are less likely to pay for apps than folks in Apple’s camp, and there’s no culture of caring about ambitious premium apps on the platform. Of course, that might not be you, dear reader. You might pine for an Android take on superb iPad apps like Pixelmator Photo, Affinity Designer, LumaFusion, Animoog Z, Korg Gadget, Ulysses, MindNode and Ferrite.
But until developers consider Android a solid investment in this space, you’re not going to get them. And by extension, Apple won’t get the competition it needs to ensure its own tablet ambitions don’t lag. The company should totally steal that selfie cam placement though.