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Android tablets: Why the struggle stays real

Even a tablet-focused update from Google can do only so much to help Android tablets emerge from the shadow of the iPad and other competition.
Written by Ross Rubin, Contributor

In my last column, I discussed the many tacts at differentiation that pro-focused vendors Lenovo and Samsung have taken in many years. In addition to those features, both tablet families offer bright, vivid displays, long battery life, and snappy performance (especially when using Qualcomm's latest).

Despite the strides that the devices have made, though, the makers of even the top-tier Android tablets continue to battle a history of negativity. Android has never posed the level of competition to the iPad that it did to the iPhone due to a chicken-and-egg problem. A lack of optimized applications made the tablets less appealing; meanwhile, the lower volume of tablets provided less incentive for developers to optimize. Lower-income Android phone buyers were less likely to purchase a "middle device" such as a tablet. Google also did little to call out tablets as a form factor worth optimizing for in the tablets' early days.

Google is now taking measures to make Android on large-screen devices a better experience, but the tablets face an unusually competitive environment. The iPad continues to hold market dominance in the pro tablet category on the high end. Indeed, the greatest threat to the iPad Pro's competitive advantage comes from Apple itself in the form of the iPad Air, has adopted many of the Pro line's best features.

Those product lines, now set apart by USB-C and Apple's M-series processor, benefit from a range of creative apps. Some of the most impressive of these are iPad-exclusive and come from smaller developers; examples include the photo editor Pixelmator and the video editor LumaFusion Pro. While Apple makes a capable version of GarageBand for the iPad, the iPadOS version of iMovie lags well behind its venerable Mac version, and despite rumors that they're in the works, Apple has not brought its pro apps Logic Pro or Final Cut Pro to the iPad.

At the other end of the iPad line, the baseline model offers some of any Apple computing product's best value and utility. As Apple has made more modest improvements to it, PC vendors such as Dell, HP, and Acer dumped Android and refocused on Windows, throwing support behind Chrome OS in tablets and 2-in-1s. The category low-point came with Google itself abandoning Android tablets -- and then tablets in general -- in its first-party devices

Google has improved the Android tablet multipane app experience, although it still could be slicker and more intuitive. Its moves came years after Android tablet vendors tried fighting back with a windowed desktop mode such as Samsung's DeX, which remains useful for preserving an experience more familiar to Windows users. While having the dual interfaces is strange, app compatibility with DeX on tablets has improved significantly since the feature's debut, addressing longstanding gripes around the lack of tablet optimization among Android apps. Beyond that, the more the Android UI resembles Windows per these desktop modes, the more it drives the desire for more screen real estate exceeding a 10" tablet baseline.

As was the case for laptops and Chromebooks, sales of larger-screen tablets soared during the pandemic. And more than a decade after the release of Honeycomb, the first tablet-optimized Android release, Google is revisiting tablet optimization with Android 12L, for which the Lenovo Tab P12 Pro has already been certified.

But 12L's focus also highlights the complex Android tablet category dynamics that extend well beyond iPad competition. The release also aims to improve Android app optimization on Chromebooks and folding phones. As Android apps find new homes on Chrome OS and even Windows, devices running those operating systems could put even more competitive pressure on Android tablets.

One significant step Google could take to raise Android tablet competitiveness against these platforms would be to commit to a full desktop Chrome implementation for Android, a to-do that it should address anyway to stay competitive with the improvements Apple has made to Safari on iPadOS. In addition to resolving any lingering compatibility issues, extension availability would make browsing on Android devices a richer experience.

Beyond the browser, as Android apps become more of a lingua franca across devices as diverse as desktop PCs and folding phones, developers could be interested in optimizing for larger displays, which would benefit Android tablets. In any case, Samsung and Lenovo -- both of which offer many devices in competitive categories -- show no signs of dampening enthusiasm for Android's native slates.

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