The Amazon Kindle Fire and Barnes & Noble Nook Tablet eradicate most of the Android tablet market. There are now three tablet players (those two plus Apple), and everyone else is pretty much irrelevant.Companies like Acer, Archos, Coby, Pandigital, Viewsonic, and Velocity Micro should just give up now, unless they can refit their businesses to deliver what consumers really want. Samsung has a tiny bit of protection because it makes really nice hardware, but that's a thin margin of safety.
It's not like most Android tablet makers have been selling a lot of units anyway, but at least up until now they were delivering something that wasn't available from the successful iPad: smaller sizes or cheaper products. Amazon has schooled them, but it's a lesson they should have learned months ago. Consumers don't want cheap chunks of mediocre hardware without any guidance as to what they're supposed to do with these things. They want something tailored to deliver a great user experience. (I explained this in a previous column, "Why the Kindle Fire
Google will not save them. With Android, Google is delivering the foundation of an experience but it's up to OEMs to close the loop; Google is delivering a plain sheet cake, but the OEMs need to do the icing. Few people want a plain sheet cake at their party (and I'll discuss those people below.)
That said, I've always believed that a nation of 300 million can support many products. They just have to be good products. Here are five experiences that I think haven't yet been fulfilled in the tablet market, and that I'd love some of these manufacturers to pursue.
The Reader's Tablet: Amazon and Barnes & Noble both abandoned passionate readers by using LCD screens, which are hard on the eyes and get awfully reflective with light overhead. There's room in the market for a full-featured tablet with a truly sunlight-readable screen. E-ink won't get you there, but Pixel Qi or Qualcomm's Mirasol technology will. This tablet could also be super slim and light, maybe even flexible. The technologies are out there, but nobody has put them together yet.
The Kids' Tablet: Kids should be able to play Starfall and watch Spongebob on a tablet without parents worrying about them downloading hundreds of dollars worth of games or surfing to porn sites. The iPad has parental controls, but it's large and costly. A smaller tablet with strict yet flexible parental controls, and maybe a guide to the best kids' apps and games, could be a hit with parents and children. The Vinci Tab has the germ of this idea, but fails because it goes too far—there's almost no content to use on that tablet.
The Entertainment Tablet: The arm of your couch is an ideal tablet habitat. A true entertainment tablet would function as a universal remote with program guide. It would have the ability to program your DVR and offer true multi-screen viewing, where you can watch shows on your tablet or TV and switch between them seamlessly. It would offer great options for downloading and renting movies and TV shows through multiple sources. The Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus, with its Peel Remote software, comes close to this ideal, but as you'll see in my upcoming review, it doesn't quite get there.
The Hackers' Tablet: Geeks want that plain sheet cake, but they also want some tubes of frosting with which they can play. If an Android tablet maker provided a tablet pre-rooted, with vibrant customer forums and open-source software, it could capture a niche of passionate techies who want to roll their own experiences. Velocity Micro's T408 comes very close to this idea but just misses it.
The Everywhere Tablet: The Amazon and Barnes & Noble tablets lack 3G, which is an opportunity for other manufacturers. But consumers don't want to be locked into two-year contracts. The iPad 2 gives you no-contract 3G that you can turn on and off nearly at will. Android tablets that match those terms of service with different form factors or lower prices could offer a go-anywhere experience that consumers might find compelling.
One thing is clear, though: generic tablets made with cheap materials, with some bland version of Android (or a few extra apps) slapped onto them, won't cut it any more. Tablet makers can face up to the challenge Amazon and Barnes & Noble are proposing, or they can get out of the business. Who's going to step up?