A strange thing happened during the announcement of Apple’s new iPad on Wednesday: for a moment, CEO Tim Cook stopped talking about his company’s products and started dissing Google’s Android operating system. Cook displayed a couple of third-party Android tablet apps followed by their iPad counterparts, showing how each Android version was just a “blown-up smart-phone app,” while the iPad versions were designed for the large display.
Apple doesn’t often dwell on the competition — the company tends to boast about its own products and accomplishments instead — so this part of the presentation struck me as unusual. Still, Cook’s claims had merit. Android tabletmakers have done an admirable job keeping up with Apple’s hardware in terms of creating thin, light slabs with high-end specs, but when it comes to apps, Android can’t keep the pace. If Apple’s Android-bashing part of the press conference didn’t light a fire under Google’s crew in Mountain View, Calif., nothing will.
In fairness, Google can only do so much. Like the iOS App Store, Google’s Android Market — er, Google Play — relies on third-party developers to thrive. Those developers decide whether to optimize apps for tablet-size displays. Still, there are signs that Google isn’t doing everything in its power to rally third-party developers.
Part of the problem is attitude. In a recent interview with the Verge, Google Android boss Andy Rubin said the biggest problem for Android tablets is “there’s no organized way for consumers to recognize it as a viable platform.”
Sorry, wrong. The much bigger problem is that Android isn’t a viable tablet platform — not while the apps that people rely on look silly on a bigger screen, and while Apple continues to get new tablet apps that Android doesn’t have. When the Verge questioned Rubin on the subject of apps, he was dismissive. Though he admitted that it was Google’s responsibility to evangelize the platform to developers, he didn’t offer a plan for how Google would do a better job of it.
One way would be to promote the tablet apps that do exist. One year after the first 10-in. Android tablets hit the market, Google’s app store still doesn’t have a way to find tablet apps. The front page has a Staff Picks for Tablet section, but that’s it. If you’re just browsing the catalog, there’s no way to tell whether an app will look good on a big screen.
In the iOS App Store, iPad users only see tablet apps in the top charts and categories; iPad apps are listed separately from iPhone apps in searches. It’s easy to see why developers are flocking to Apple: the App Store makes their tablet software so much easier to find.
Google could also take a page from Apple and lead by example. Look at the homemade apps that Apple has created. iMovie, GarageBand and the new iPhoto aren’t just a direct source of revenue for Apple. They’re hardware sellers — the kinds of mass-appeal software products people envision themselves using — and they’re inspiration for third-party developers.
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Google offers nothing similar, other than table-stakes apps like Gmail and Calendar. If Google isn’t getting any showstopping tablet apps for Android, the company should create some of its own.
What Google should not do is go silent and pretend the problem doesn’t exist. It can make all the “highest quality” tablets it wants, but people won’t buy them without great software. For Google’s sake, I hope the new iPad announcement drove that point home.