Android tablets are doomed without a single OS version

Summary:A lot of ink has been spilled decrying the Android fragmentation problem, and while the smartphone space is surviving in spite of it the tablet space will not.

This weekend has been an Android tablet weekend. I've been updating all the tablets I have, both OS and app updates. I like doing it as it is fun to get under the hood with Android and tinker. All of this updating has driven one point home that Google hasn't understood yet -- until there is one OS version on all Android tablets they will never compete well.

The tablets I have are varied, yet have something in common that is giving me fits. All but one of them is running Android 2.3 (Gingerbread), which is not even an official tablet OS version according to Google. The one exception, the Galaxy Tab 10.1, is officially running Honeycomb, a "real" tablet OS. The latest version of Android, Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS), has been out for a few months and there are even apps appearing that require it, but it is only available on one or two tablets.

That is a huge problem for Android tablets in the marketplace -- it's bad enough to not have the latest OS version but with tablet apps now requiring the latest version that no one has it is a deal-breaker. Google likes to spout an insane number of apps in the Android Market that are optimized for the tablet, but the fact is very few tablets in customers' hands can even install them. Tablet apps require Honeycomb or later to install, and the vast majority of tablets sold (thanks to the Kindle Fire) are running a non-tablet version, Gingerbread.

Pre-Honeycomb tablets are restricted to running phone apps blown up to fit the tablet screen. Apps actually written for tablet use require Honeycomb at least, so only a fraction of tablets sold can even run them. Now apps are appearing that require ICS, Google's own Chrome browser is at the top of the list, and those can run on maybe a few customer's tablets.

The system has evolved so that most tablets sold cannot run tablet apps. That makes no sense on any level, but it is the way things have been allowed to happen. Now Honeycomb tablets cannot run the best tablet apps, even though they are genuine tablets. Android tablet owners have everything stacked against them at every turn, and Google is firmly to blame for that situation.

The real group impacted by this tablet OS situation is the app developers. They are expected to write tablet apps for the platform with few tablet owners able to run them. Now they are dependent on only the latest version of Android to take advantage of the platform, aka Google Chrome, and yet they can't expect much return due to the lack of tablets in the market that can even run those apps.

Owners can take matters into their own hands and root their tablet and put an unsupported ROM onboard. I've done that with my Galaxy Tab 10.1 to get ICS installed so I can run Google Chrome. That's not the way it should work, however, and why Android will never aggressively compete in the tablet space. While the smartphone space can survive the fragmentation issue, tablets cannot.

Even Microsoft understands that a single tablet platform is required to have a chance in the market, and while I'm not sure it will compete well I respect its approach. Android on tablets is floundering, however, and will continue to do so until Google gets a single tablet OS version on all tablets sold.

Of interest:

Topics: Laptops, Android, Hardware, Mobility, Operating Systems, Tablets

About

James Kendrick has been using mobile devices since they weighed 30 pounds, and has been sharing his insights on mobile technology for almost that long. Prior to joining ZDNet, James was the Founding Editor of jkOnTheRun, a CNET Top 100 Tech Blog that was acquired by GigaOM in 2008 and is now part of that prestigious tech network. James' w... Full Bio

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