Android Tablets as a Reflection of the Early 2000's Laptop Market
In the early years of the 21st century, laptops were just becoming popular, and laptop makers sought to differentiate themselves from their rivals in an attempt to take the lion's share of the market. Computers were still fairly new, and scary to a large portion of the population. The average computer buyer didn't know what a MHz was, or the difference between RAM and hard drive space (most still don't). People also didn't really know what "Windows" was; they would say "I bought a Compaq," thinking that Compaq's computers were a totally different beast from a Dell or Gateway. And they thought this with good reason: it wasn't that much earlier that different companies' computers really were completely different. The "Wintel" IBM clone market only really began in the early 90's, and even then your average person wasn't running out to buy a computer. But times change, and around 2000 computers were becoming mainstream, with heavy promotion of wireless networks and laptops thanks to Intel's "Centrino" marketing push.
So, as I said, marketing and differentiation were key. PC makers were all dealing with the same set of hardware, so differentiation was basically a matter of price and design. And computers were becoming commodity hardware, so manufacturers could only cut prices so much while retaining a profit.
Design to the rescue! PC makers pulled out every design trick up their sleeves. Some laptops came with a special "quick boot" mode (usually running some version of Linux) that would let you access your music or videos without spending the time to boot up the whole computer. Others had dedicated portions of their keyboard for controlling music playback, or for opening your favorite websites. Some manufacturers got far more ambitious, launching convertible "slate" laptops with stylus pen input.
The result of all this design work was the proliferation of gimmicks. None of these features were part of the underlying operating system (Windows), which moved according to its own set of development priorities. There was no standardization of features, and almost all of these gimmicks relied on proprietary software from the manufacturer to work at all. Needless to say, computer manufacturers are not generally known for their software chops, and the programs that allowed you to use your laptop's gimmicks was generally just a software update or two away from never working again.
In Which I Finally Talk About Android
So why the history lesson? Last week I had a chance to try out a new (to me) Android tablet, the HTC Evo View 4G (what a mouthful!). It exemplifies the current crop of Android tablets - sleek though uninspired design, powerful hardware, and Android 2.3 "Gingerbread" with a fancy skin on top in the form of HTC's "Sense UI". Sense is a gimmick in its own right, being a proprietary layer on top of an underlying OS, but that's not what led me to write this.
No, the View comes with something far more gimmicky: a dedicated stylus. Granted, "comes with" is not entirely true; you have to buy the stylus separately at an exorbitant price, and there is no place in the body of the View to store that stylus when you aren't using it. But the View is a device that is clearly built to rely on that stylus. It has a dedicated soft button in a prominent place on its front that only responds to a tap from the stylus, presenting you with a variety of pen options like brush type, thickness, and color. It also gives you quick access to the built-in note taking app that syncs with Evernote.
Compared to most gimmicks, this one is extremely well-implemented. You can access the pen tools from anywhere, and doodle on the screen in every app I tested. The ebook reader app lets you scribble notes in the margin, and the browser even lets you scribble notes on a web page. All of this is saved somewhere so that it comes back when you return, which is incredibly useful. It makes the tablet more of a true paper replacement when compared to the relative rigidity of interacting with devices like the iPad.
But it's still a gimmick. The pen doesn't work everywhere, only in the apps that HTC has specifically worked around in its Sense code. Even there I found gaps: the on-screen keyboard, for example, only responds to fingers, not the stylus, and text selection doesn't know how to deal with your scribbles. Like all other gimmicks, I expect stylus support to work for an update or two before silently being dropped. By then, new tablets will have come out with their own gimmicks, enticing customers to open up their wallets for the promise of functionality that no other vendor can match. But as always the advertising and feature lists will be promising something that only really exists in marketing, and works rarely if at all in real life.
I see this as the fundamental flaw with Android as an ecosystem. Just like with Wintel, manufacturers are struggling to differentiate themselves from their competition, and since these devices are so cheap, they are turning to the only technique they have ever used.
Is there a solution? Is this even a bad thing, necessarily? I don't know. The View was the first Android device I had ever used that I could see myself using again, based just on the strength of its gimmick (it really is well-done, I encourage you to give it a try if you see one). But until these gimmicks get standardization behind them, they will only end up angering customers who get burned when the gimmick stops working or, in the case of Android, prevents them from getting upstream OS updates.
In short, Android needs to be more of a consortium and less of a platform. If companies built their advances into the underlying OS, Android could be formidable. As it is, it's the new Windows XP - a powerful workhorse that has problems adapting to its own future.