As 2017 gets started, one thing has become abundantly clear to me: The days of the Android tablet form factor are numbered. Its not that the Android experience on tablets will kill them – which is pretty poor to be fair – but rather the flood of Chromebooks and other Chrome OS devices that are set to hit the market this year. 2017 will be the year that Chrome OS takes off for good with a wide range of form factors expected to be release and the much anticipated support of Android apps on the platform in Chrome 56. The latter is due within days and the former, with the likes of Samsung’s new Chromebooks, will set the stage for a transformative year.
The push for the tablet form factor came fundamentally from Apple. With the launch of the iPad, it suddenly became a tool by which you could get more things done on a larger screen. Add to that portability and a lower cost, generally, than a laptop and you set the stage for a form factor that seemingly many wanted. But for all the might of Apple, the iPad has never really taken hold. Samsung, HTC and Google themselves have had the same struggles. They brought the conveniences of a mobile Operating System and the associated apps but equally, they brought limitations that users did not experience on laptops. It was, as if, they were a stop-gap measure until a proper merger of a desktop OS and a mobile OS could take place.
That merger is happening now with Chrome OS and Android.
Android apps running in Chrome will be more than just a stop gap. You will get the benefits of an app ecosystem along with the power and productivity of a desktop OS. Is it perfect? No but it is a far cry better than having two completely desparent solutions to meet your productivity and entertainment needs.
I suspect that my usage of my Nexus 9 Android tablet is similar to many of you. I like the tablet but 90% of my use of it is for entertainment: Games, movie watching and social networking. Rarely do I use it for productivity, even with the solid Google productivity apps like Docs, Sheets and Slides. The only time I really use it for productivity is when I’m on an airplane, in coach, crammed into a little seat with little room to pull out a 14″ Chromebook to work. If I’m in business class or First class, the Chromebook is always the weapon of choice to get things done. So the question becomes, if I had my entertainment on a slate or convertible Chrome OS-based device, would I need a tablet? The answer, in my mind, is a resounding no.
Chrome OS Form Factor Changes Make it Possible
This leads me to what I think is the critical driver for not only the success of Chrome OS but the death of Android tablets, form factor. To this point you have had more-or-less two form factors for Chrome devices. Either they were a laptop style device, a few of which could rotate 180-degrees to form a thick slate. The second option was a Chromebox, a device that sat on your desk and replaced the desktop PC experience. Those will continue to be there but it is the improvements on these plus a detachable device that will make the winning shot.
If you look at the new Samsung Chromebooks, they have everything that you need to make them productive as well as entertaining. They have touch screens, a stylus in some cases, they flip back 180-degrees to form a slate and they will, out-of-the-box, run Android apps. Android is designed for touch so having a touch screen is a must. Dell has also committed to a new lineup of Chromebooks which, while initially pointed at education, bring similar two-in-one designs.
The big change however will come when detachable designs hit the market. Source code for Chrome OS indicate that a new detachable design could be in the works. While not a whole lot is known about Poppy, the code name for the project, all indications in the code suggest a dockable display to a keyboard. This concept isn’t new for Windows PCs and it would bring a laptop or slate experience to users all in one device. If indeed we see Poppy devices this year, that may be the biggest nail in the Android tablet coffin. It would give the slate experience of a tablet along with Android apps and the feature depth of Chrome OS. Remember, all Chromebooks going forward have to support Android apps.
Detachable Chrome OS Devices Answers Android Tablet’s Primary Use – Entertainment
Getting back to my Nexus 9. The top things I do with it, in order:
- Read eBooks and Magazines (Google Play Books & Google Play Newsstand mostly)
- Games (F1 2016, Real Racing 3, Alto’s Adventure and Angry Birds 2)
- Movie/TV watching (Netflix, Amazon Prime & Google Play Movies & TV)
- Social Networks (Facebook, Google+)
This list makes up 90+% of what I do on this device. That other 10-odd percent is productivity (Google Docs, Gmail, etc). Am I that different? I don’t think so and welcome readers to provide feedback. In the survey of friends & family who have Android tablets, a small group of 12 people admittedly, none of them considered their tablet their primary device. Further, all of them indicated that their usage habits were strikingly similar to mine with variations in which of the list above is used more than the other. Of the 12 people, fully 8 of them said they felt their tablet purchase was not a wise purchasing decision and none of the 12 indicated they would buy another tablet.
For comparison, I asked 12 people who I know own iPads the same questions. The results were nearly the same. Only 1 person indicated they “loved” their iPad and found it a highly productive tool for them. Ten more said they use it for the entertainment I outlined above while one indicated they had just bought their first iPad so the verdict was out for them.
24 people interviewed, only 1 said they found their devices productive. That, even in a small survey, is pretty damning for a form factor.
I then asked these 24 people if they could have a detachable device that could meet their laptop and their tablet needs, would they be interested? All said yes but only 6 of them indicated they would be interested in a Chrome. Seven of the remaining wanted Apple to design such a device while the other 11 preferred Windows. This, in my view, was telling as well as the raw usage results. It tells me that there is a desire for a detachable device but that Google has to get serious about marketing Chrome OS as a platform if they want it to be successful. There is no indication at all that Apple is interested in this dual form factor design. There are several Windows PC devices out there that are this design but most are underpowered because of the footprint of Windows 10 itself on them. The opportunity is there for Google.
The whole argument then for Chrome OS to kill Android tablets hinges (pardon the pun) on detachable devices. Without them, things in the tablet world will remain stagnant and Chromebooks will enjoy growth and success but not beyond certain vertical markets or in the wide spread consumer realm.
Chrome OS Needs Marketing Dollars To Beat A Stigma
Even if Google and a manufacture were to release a detachable device tomorrow, there is a stigma associated with Chrome OS that has to be conquered before widespread consumer adoption can happen. In my simple survey I did for this article, only 6 of 24 indicated they would be interested in a Chrome OS device. That’s just 25%. That led me to ask another question of the 18 who indicated they wanted an Apple or Windows-based detachable device. Why not Chrome? The overwhelming answers were:
- “It only works online”
- “It isn’t powerful enough”
- “It isn’t pretty”
The first two answers are merely a matter of education. Users of Chrome OS know they can be used offline and as far as power, there are a wide range of Intel-powered i3, i5 and i7 Chromebooks out there. Power is there to be had if you are willing to spend for it. These can be solved with campaigns to educate and explain the power of the platform.
The third answer is a bit more challenging. Aesthetic appeal of Chrome OS has been great – if you are an engineer. The problem is it looks geeky. Windows 10, for all its oddities, is bloody pretty to look at on a display. The same thing goes for MacOS. That presents a sizable challenge for the Chrome team within Google. For sure, the platform has matured in the User Interface, especially since around Chrome 53 onwards. That was mid-year last year. Material Design continues to be injected into the UI along with other improvements that make it feel and look more like an Operating System instead of a browser. But it still doesn’t have the smoothness of Windows or MacOS. That will have to continue to improve.
If Google wants to be successful, they are going to have to make the investment in marketing to get past these stigmas. Part of that education and marketing also has to focus on the fact that the platform runs Android apps which will have an appeal for many on that fact alone. But to really penetrate the market with a detachable design, they will have to educate, market, educate again and continue marketing for people to truly understand the benefits of Chrome OS. It is not a small task or an inexpensive one, but one that must be done. Simply having a detachable design alone will not win the day.
2017 A Pivotal Point for Chrome OS & Android
If Google and their partner manufactures do indeed get a detachable Chrome OS based device out in 2017, start marketing the platform as a viable alternative to the traditional laptop and continue to “beautify” the UI, 2017 could be the turning point for both Chrome OS and Android tablet. The former could see success far beyond where it is now with a much broader acceptance in the consumer markets. The latter could see their days well and truly numbered as a limited form factor. The question is will it happen? All the early indications just a few days over a month into the new year suggest yes. Source code for the platform refers to a “Poppy” detachable device. Samsung, Dell and others seem to be doubling-down on the platform. Chrome OS 56 is due soon which will bring Android app support to a wide range of existing Chromebooks and Google has already indicated any new Chrome OS device will have to run Android apps out of the box. The biggest obstacle if all of these happen is if Google can get past the “geek” stigma of the platform. That will required education of and marketing to consumers. That is no small or inexpensive task but one that is critical to the growth potential of Chrome OS this year.
If this all comes to bare, Android tablets will struggle to remain in the market. They will be come a footnote as a stop-gap measure which enjoyed limited success.