At the annual I/O event in San Francisco yesterday, Google unveiled its low-cost Nexus 7 tablet computer as it looks to take on Amazon in the content game. But how does it compare with the competition? Guy Daniels reports.
Google is pretty bullish about its Android platform; and let’s face it, it has to be. Apple’s iOS remains far more profitable, and Microsoft’s latest Windows Phone release will surely start making inroads into Google’s current customer base (admittedly, it hasn’t yet…). So when Google’s director of product management for Android, Hugo Barra, took to the stage at the Moscone Center in San Francisco for the first day’s keynote at the company I/O event, he was quick to highlight the achievements: 100 million device activations at the time of last year’s event, 400 million activations as of this year, 1 million new devices activated every day, 12 new devices sold every second…
All very good, but the vast majority of these devices are smartphones. When it comes to tablets, third-party Android devices have so far failed to prise away customers from Apple’s market leading iPad. Add to this, Amazon has cornered the lower end tablet market (the cheaper 7-inch devices) with its reader-based Kindle Fire. Time for Google to step in and show its partners – and consumers – just what an Android tablet can do.
And so Barra announced the Nexus 7 tablet to the wild delight of the audience of Google developers. The 7-inch tablet runs the latest Android 4.1 OS (Jelly Bean) and is built, according to Barra, specifically for Google Play. Manufacturing was done in partnership with Taiwanese computer maker Asus.
Barra says Google Play is the world’s largest ebook content ecosystem – an obvious dig at Amazon. It’s now introducing TV and movie purchases (as opposed to just rentals), and is fully supporting digital magazines (with what looks like a dedicated viewer feature – no further details yet). There are now 600,000 apps and games in Google Play, with 20 billion total apps installed to date in 132 different countries, and more than 50 per cent feature in-app billing. Jelly Bean introduces app encryption, which will be of considerable interest to carriers, no doubt. One of the other interesting changes is data-friendly ‘smart updates’, which means only the relevant portion of updated apps is downloaded (three cheers for that).
So it makes sense to support this growing content collection with a best-in-class tablet device. The Nexus 7 has a 1280 x 800 16:9 HD display, a Tegra-3 chipset with a quad-core CPU and 12-core GPU, front facing camera, wi-fi and NFC. No sign of cellular support though. It weighs in at just 340g. There’s a claimed 8 hours of battery life with constant HD video playback, rising to 10 hours for e-reading or web browsing. Talking of which, browser support is via Chrome, and there’s an offline mapping feature.
Make no mistake, this tablet is going after the Amazon Kindle Fire market. It even has a content recommendation engine… All this for $199.
Plus, it includes preloaded with a movie (Transformers: Dark of the Moon), an eBook (The Bourne Dominion), magazines (Condé Nast Traveler and Popular Science) and music (Coldplay and the Rolling Stones). And there’s also a $25 voucher to spend in the Google Store. Definitely an Amazon assault.
Shipping starts in July, and the Nexus 7 will be available initially in the US, Canada, the UK and Australia.
To compare it with the Kindle Fire, the Nexus 7 has a higher resolution screen (Kindle has 1024 x 600 and just 169ppi), a better processor (Kindle is dual-core) and a more advanced OS (Kindle uses a customised version of 2.3 Gingerbread). Having said that, prices are the same, external ports are the same (micro USB), networking is the same, size and weight are pretty similar, and battery life is about the same. What’s more, Amazon is widely believed to be updating the Fire and should release details of a new model very soon.
The All Things D site has comments from Asus Chairman Jonney Shih, who reveals that Google gave the company only four months to build the new tablet. Google’s Scott Rubin admits in the same article that he was “upset” a year ago that Android tablets just weren’t selling, before realising that consumers are buying into a content ecosystem with tablets. Hence the improvements made to Google Play this week, and its position at the heart of the tablet announcement.
Apparently Google is selling the Nexus 7 through its Google Play store at cost, and absorbing the associated marketing costs. Added together, this must be a loss-leader for Google.
The big question: is the Nexus proposition sufficiently better than the Kindle Fire? It would appear that Google is more interested in developing its content ecosystem through Google Play than trying to produce the best ‘pure’ tablet. To do that, it needs to break Amazon’s monopoly and not let it get a head start in the mobile digital content sector.
The Guardian newspaper features a quote from Salman Chaudhry, analyst at research company Context, who says that despite Google's efforts to differentiate the Nexus 7, lessons still haven’t been learnt from previous 7-inch tablet failures, such as the RIM Playbook and HTC Flyer:
“Against this backdrop, strategy needs to be more aligned towards the Kindle Fire’s purely ‘content-consumption’ orientated device. However, if Google is looking to take a bite out of Amazon’s share, it will find that it’s competing against a much more well-developed entertainment-orientated platform with huge, well-organised catalogues of books and media content.”
According to research firm IDC, total sales of tablet computers will reach 105 million units this year and 143 million in 2013, compared with total PC sales of about 400 million (60 per cent of which will be laptops). The iPad is expected to account for 61 per cent of all tablet sales this year.
Where this leaves other tablets is rather interesting. The iPad is also about content – and despite what Apple says or does, tablets are far more about consuming content than creating it (at least at the moment). Tablets from Android OEMs? Do they have control of their own content ecosystems? If not, what’s the point? Those that don’t are surely destined to become niche products for specific sectors. Samsung arguably had the best multi-purpose Android tablet out there (not that there was much competition) – so what does it do now?
The tablet business just got interesting.
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