Is Google’s New Tablet A Game Changer?

Today, Google announced the Nexus 7 tablet. Curiously built as a partnership with ASUS, the device is a 7″ tablet with a quad-core processor, a fairly pedestrian screen and otherwise unremarkable specifications. It isn’t being offered with anything but WiFi connectivity (at least for now). Google’s “theme” is that this is a device “built for Google Play”, so it appears to be meant to be a portal to bigger things (much like the Kindle Fire). Like the Fire, the prices start at a fairly low US$199. So, is this thing a game-changer?

Lots of CPU, Not Much Else

Except the presence of the quad-core processor, there is really nothing truly remarkable about this device. The industrial design is best described as “inoffensive”. It isn’t particularly attractive, but then, it isn’t horribly ugly. It is actually a bit dull and uninspiring. The on-board storage is nothing remarkable, and fairly conventional. The built-in camera is adequate for video conferencing, but not much else. Given that I have seen an inordinate number of people using iPads as video and still cameras (and looking a bit ridiculous in the process), the omission of a decent rear camera could be a bit of an oversight. It also eliminates any sort of augmented reality apps, which may not be a big deal, but it is a limitation when compared to the leader.

Basically, its yet another tablet. There is nothing in this device that makes it an “iPad killer”. It will run the rather slim number of tablet-oriented apps in the Google Play store as well as any other Android tablet, although games will certainly benefit from the extra processor power. But the Nexus doesn’t offer any more in the way of content that I can get for iOS. This device doesn’t change anything.

It Isn’t From Motorola?

What makes this an odd and curious device is that it isn’t from Motorola Mobility. That leads me to wonder if Google really has any plans for their new hardware group, or if it is like a lot of their purchases over the years: impulsive and not particularly well thought out. Google has spent billions of dollars on companies, and has parked an inordinate number of the newly acquihired bits on the shelf. As a start-up founder, that is attractive. But if you are a Google shareholder, you have to wonder at the wisdom of spending money just because some company has something that looks “cool” or “neat”. It’s like taking a small child the toy store. They seem to buy whatever shiny thing is in front of them, then toss it aside for the next shiny thing.

If I were at the Motorola group, I would be more than a little miffed at this development. This would be like HP deciding to use Dell to build some product for them, instead of using their own people. Whether Google wants to admit it or not, they are in the hardware business. They spent $12.5 billion to get a hardware company. To not use it for a product that is this important just seems downright stupid. I can’t think of a better word for it.

Is This Supposed to “Inspire” Other Tablet Makers?

One possible angle is that Google is trying to show other tablet makers “how it’s done”. That same thought has been put forward for the Microsoft Surface. But the difference is that the Surface is an incredible example of stunning industrial design. The machine is gorgeous. The Nexus 7 is, well, not. If this is supposed to be some kind of example of “the best of the best”, then this thing has fallen short of the mark.

Sure, the Nexus 7 has some impressive internal hardware. But guess what? Consumers don’t buy tech specs. They buy a curious mix of specs and design, but they really care about ecosystem. And despite the hyperbole on the Nexus 7 site, iPad is still the leader when it comes to content. Obviously, this isn’t a permanent situation, but it has been so for quite some time. Even Amazon finally realized that the Kindle Fire wasn’t enough, and is now supporting more of their content (beyond books) for the iPad.

If this was meant to be an example for others to follow, it isn’t a very good one. Oh, I expect it will be a solidly built machine, and as I said, the internals look impressive. But great specs coupled with a yawn-inducing design is no way to “show the way”.

We Know What Doesn’t Work (Yet)

All attempts at taking on the iPad have gone one of few different routes. First, Samsung tried the “smaller is better” route with the first Galaxy Tab (which is a pretty decent little machine, BTW). That didn’t make a difference. Samsung then tried going dual-core before the iPad, but that didn’t matter. Amazon tried the “let’s go real cheap” route, albeit with a machine that matches the price, and that didn’t slow iPad down. Samsung gained a bit of traction when it brought out the 10″ models, but even that really didn’t do much to put a damper on iPad. So what does this tablet do that is different from previous attempts? In reality, very little. It has substantially better hardware than the Fire, at the same price-point, so it is a step forward there. But without a good rear-facing camera, and no immediate support for 3G/4G or some other wireless broadband, plus on-board storage limited to 16GB, it is a lesser tablet in every way except for processing power.

This isn’t to say that price won’t move up the checklist when it comes to important features on a tablet for consumers.  Tablets are a new beast, and everyone is still trying to figure them out. Are they a PC replacement? Are they an oversized phone? Are they mainly for content consumption? Are they for productivity? The answer, so far, is pretty much “yes” an all counts, but all manner of caveats. We are still in early stages of this device, so price sensitivity hasn’t become a factor. It likely will at some point, but that time is still a year or more off. It is at that point we might see some changes in the tablet landscape. But that assumes Apple won’t provide an answer to that. They did in iPods, and that helped to maintain an overwhelming lead in that space. Apple really didn’t in smartphones, and that is part of what has contributed to Android’s rise and Apple being stuck as second banana.

Right now, I’m not sure what exactly the point of the Nexus 7 is. It doesn’t really advance the state of the art when it comes to tablets. It has an underwhelming and uninspiring design, when it comes to external appearance. It has internal specs that will matter to technologists, but won’t really matter to consumers. It is an interesting machine, but I don’t see it as any sort of game-changer.