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miércoles, 20 de octubre de 2010

How 7-Inch Android Tablets Can Succeed

Seven-inch tablets may have drawn Steve Jobs’ contempt, but they could be a very good thing for consumers.

During Apple’s earnings call yesterday, Apple’s CEO argued forcefully that a 7-inch Android tablet could never compete with Apple’s nearly 10-inch iPad.

“Seven-inch tablets are tweeners: too big to compete with a smartphone and too small to compete with the iPad,” Jobs said, in an extended thrashing of Apple’s competitors. “These are among the reasons that the current crop of 7-inch tablets are going to be DOA — dead on arrival.”

I don’t understand why 7-inch tablets being “tweeners” is necessarily a bad thing for Android or tablet-makers.

If Jobs is right that the smaller tablets won’t be able to beat Apple’s iPad on price, that could indeed be a deal-breaker. But the pricing we have seen on smaller Android tablets suggests that they’ll be at least $100 cheaper than the current entry-level iPad, even without a data plan. If they’re sold with data plans and carrier subsidies like smartphones, they could be even cheaper than that.

Lower cost isn’t the only appeal of going small. Seven-inch tablets are lighter than 10-inch devices. They’re infinitely easier to hold in one hand. They’re easier to type on with two hands (particularly if you have small hands). They fit into smaller bags. And you use them to do different things.

Really, a 7-inch tablet is closer to an e-reader, a personal media player or a handheld gaming device than the iPad is. It’s no coincidence that most e-readers, such as the Kindle and Sony Reader Daily Edition, have 6- or 7-inch screens: That’s about the size of a paperback book.

In turn, the iPad is closer to a mini-notebook than a small tablet is. Neither tablet size is exactly like these other devices, but those are roughly the ecosystems in which they find themselves.

The real mistake in Jobs’s logic is thinking that the 7-inch “tweeners” have to compete with the iPad. They don’t. Mini-tablets could be to the iPad what mini-notebooks are to the MacBook and MacBook Air: smaller, less-expensive form factors that appeal to people looking for different features. Tablets running a full desktop OS like Windows 7 are different still.

In fact, just for these reasons, 7-inch tablets arguably have a better chance of success than 10-inch tablets looking to go head-to-head with the iPad. They can create a distinct sphere where they compete with each other, rather than with the biggest guy in the room.

Ironically, this is actually a classic Apple move: Instead of competing in a space where you can’t win, create a space where you can do something new. Instead of trying to beat (or be) Apple, Android and RIM and all of the other tablet developers need to play to their strengths and be the best version of themselves.

Jobs is right that Apple doesn’t have a compelling reason to make a 7-inch tablet; it would only introduce a third iOS variant for developers and consumers when the iPad and iPhone/iPod touch have already been tremendously successful. But other hardware, mobile-OS and mobile-application companies don’t have to worry about compatibility with Apple’s other form factors. They have to find devices, screen sizes and UIs that work for them.

Jobs is also right that Android will fragment if it tries to support too many screen sizes, form factors and app marketplaces, and this could create confusion among users. But there’s no reason why this fragmentation needs to be either total or deadly.

In fact, Google has already tried to exert some soft control over the Android universe. It’s warned developers and users about using non-tablet software for tablet devices, asking them to wait for official support in Android 3.0. It’s also created hardware standards that devices need to meet to access the official Android Market.

Again, because Android is open source, people can create their own tablets and alternative app stores if they don’t want to play by Google’s rules. That’s fine. It creates a legal alternative that could even be healthier than Apple’s current quasi-underground jailbreak community.

But Google could use access to Android Market to set common standards for hardware makers and software developers. It wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) be as strict as Apple’s rules for its App Store, or even Windows Phone 7’s hybrid approach, but it’s closer to the latter than the former. Through the Market, Google can articulate its own expectations for what the smartphone and tablet experience ought to be.

Google could even rally around the 7-inch tablet, trumpeting it as a clear alternative to Apple’s “oversized” iPad, where it’s easier for current Android developers to upscale their smartphone software and offering them a larger canvas to experiment with richer apps.

If Android tablet makers can get their devices into anywhere near as many users’ hands as Apple’s been able to get theirs, that’s a compelling proposition indeed.

One thing is clear: If the makers of Android tablets are going to catch up to Apple’s dominance in tablets, they’ll have to take a page out of Steve Jobs’ own book.

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