MediaFile

Google enters the tablet wars with a small, safe bet

June 28, 2012

Google took another bite at the hardware apple with the announcement Wednesday of the Nexus Seven tablet. The tablet, very wisely, is not looking to compete with Apple’s iPad – the indisputable leader — but rather the smaller, cheaper tablets from Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Outside of the iPad monolith, the Kindle Fire and Nook Color have been the most competitive entrants (albeit modestly) since Apple created the market in 2010.

Google’s Nexus Seven is a safe bet and, especially given Microsoft’s (sort of) foray into tablets, not entirely unexpected from the search and advertising giant.

And that’s why Google is smart to go after a part of the market where Apple doesn’t compete — the iPad is a “full-sized” device of 9.5 inches that starts at $500. There’s no reason to believe Apple is interested in making a 7-inch model, a size the late Steve Jobs derided. But both Amazon’s Kindle Fire and the Barnes & Noble Nook Tablet are 7-inch models that retail for $200, the same as Google’s Nexus Seven. By going after less-entrenched – but still huge! – companies, Google’s success doesn’t have to be measured against Apple’s. It can start small – literally – and see if it makes inroads against two companies still trying to make inroads themselves.

Avoiding direct competition with the iPad also lets Google avoid comparison with Apple’s significant app advantage. Apple benefits from a seemingly endless supply of third-party apps (actually 225,000), which makes the iPad a digital Swiss Army Knife, an all-purpose mobile tool that is very often a replacement for a laptop.

The other small, less dexterous tablets come from content companies that realized that building a tablet was just a good way to put up a better storefront in the digital age. Both the Kindle and the Nook Tablet are tied to reading, and buying, books. They are meant to be more robust alternatives to smaller, lighter, cheaper e-ink e-readers and as such are modest conceptual upsells. The Kindle also is a streaming platform for Amazon’s smallish but respectable film library. Most important, it is tied to a retail universe where most things Amazon sells are one click and two days away from arriving at your doorstep.

But Google isn’t really a content company either (Google Play notwithstanding). What it is is a tech company. It has a massive ecosystem, yes, but of mail, messaging, video, social networks, documents and calendars. Arguably a branded tablet that binds all that together would improve the user experience in the manner of the Fire and Nook Tablet. If the Nexus Seven is going to distinguish itself, it’s by harping on this – that it centralizes your digital life, the same digital life that Google is already central to.

A branded tablet could be a great showcase for Google’s latest flavor of Android tablet software, called Jellybean. While Android has made great inroads as a smartphone operating system in competition with Apple’s iOS, it has been a very poor driver of tablet sales from third parties. Showing “how it’s done” by controlling as much as possible – part of the secret to Apple’s success, and clearly a lesson learned by Microsoft with its Surface tablet initiative – could reignite Android’s relevance as a tablet operating system and thus spur other manufacturers to up their design game.

But the simplest reason for this new Google initiative may justify the relatively low risk it is taking: Anything that increases Web use, especially in mobile, plays to Google’s strength. Remember, Google is the digital world’s advertising behemoth. The more people on the Internet, the better Google’s bottom line, since 100 percent of its revenues come from ads. Even if a new Google tablet increased the market by a pathetic 1 percent, that’s something.

Google flopped with the Nexus One smartphone. It didn’t set the world on fire with its cheap netbooks. Third time might be the charm. But if it isn’t, so what? This is a case of nothing ventured, nothing gained, with nothing to lose.

PHOTO: Hugo Barra, director of product management of Google, unveils Nexus 7 tablet during Google I/O 2012 Conference at Moscone Center in San Francisco, California June 27, 2012. REUTERS/Stephen Lam

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