My experience using Google's Nexus 7 Android tablet suggests to me that it might not matter.
The rumored Apple tablet got renewed attention last week, after court documents in the Apple-Samsung patent dispute revealed that even after Steve Jobs famously dismissed 7-inch tablets in October 2010, Apple was still internally discussing the idea.
How have we gone from Jobs seeming to declare that 7-inch tablets (specifically Android tablets) made no sense to Apple appearing likely to release its own tablet with a similar form factor?
The world of tablets has radically changed. First the Kindle Fire and now the Nexus 7 have ushered in a new era.
The rebirth of 7-inch tablets
Let's itemize the things that Jobs believed were wrong with the 7-inch Android tablets back at the end of 2010:
- Too expensive
- Too small for good touch control
- Too big to be mobile
- Android's software wasn't tablet-ready
- Lack of tablet apps
I certainly would agree on the expensive part. Before the Kindle Fire, 7-inch tablets I looked at like the Samsung Galaxy Tab were too close in price to the iPad yet seemed to be far less polished to use. No thanks. But that's changed, as I'll get to.
The "too small for touch control" argument never made much sense, given that millions routinely and successfully use touch-screen devices, including those from Apple, that are much smaller than the iPad.
The "too big to be mobile idea" was that it made no sense to Jobs that anyone would carry around a 7-inch oversized phone that gave them little additional benefit than the phone they'd almost certainly also be carrying.
I can see that. That's why when I was on weekend trip recently, I took my iPad and my phone but not my Nexus 7. I wanted the extra space the iPad would give me for games or doing e-mail, space I wouldn't get from the Nexus 7.
Tablets sized for bookworms
However, I also packed something else on that trip, my Kindle. For reading books, it succeeds where my iPad or my phone fail. Taking the font size up in the Kindle app on my phone is workable but not ideal. The iPad is just too heavy for reading for extended periods, I find. The Kindle is just right.
What's also ideal is a 7-inch tablet, and that's where the Kindle Fire was such a game-changer. As I covered in my Kindle comparison, the Kindle Fire is a pretty awesome e-book reader. But beyond that, it was also a workable tablet.
Sure, it isn't as nice a tablet to use as an iPad. But the Kindle Fire, at $200, is also half the price of an iPad. If you're on a budget and hadn't already invested in content that could only be viewed through Apple devices, the Kindle Fire has been a compelling option.
That leads to the Nexus 7, which is even more compelling. As I covered in my Nexus 7 review, the device is fast, responsive and a pleasure to use. As with the Kindle Fire, if the iPad is too much in size or cost, the Nexus 7 delivers -- and delivers better than the Kindle Fire does, for the same price.
Going back to that list from Jobs, the first three negatives can be safely dismissed, I'd say. Yes, 7-inch Android tablets can be big enough for good touch control, can be small enough to be mobile, and can be affordable.
That leaves the issue of the operating system and applications not being tablet-ready or tablet-friendly. I think that when it comes to the Nexus 7, these issues are also gone, as well.
Android 4 feels nice on "little" tablets
I've not been a fan of Android 4. I felt it made things more confusing and less workable than Android 2. The Android 4.1 "Jelly Bean" version I've used on a review unit of the Galaxy Nexus that Google gave me hasn't changed my views much. Aside from the amazingly faster camera performance, I still find much about it as frustrating as Android 4.0 that runs on my main Android phone: the Galaxy Nexus I purchased through Verizon.
On the Nexus 7, however, Android 4.1 feels right. Perhaps it's because on my phone, I'm on the move, and often using the phone in sunlight, where it can be hard to see the soft buttons or to easily click on the wrong thing. With the Nexus 7, I'm usually indoors, where it's easier to see plus there's just more room on the screen to interact. For whatever reason, I do like it. I'd still give the iPad the edge, but it's more a narrow edge than a huge gap over Android.
What was especially notable to me was how I didn't miss having tablet versions of apps for the Nexus 7, as I have on 10-inch Android tablets I've used.
In the past, using an application like Twitter on an Android tablet was a huge disappointment. Whereas the iPad app intelligently made use of all the tablet space, the Android app just wasted it. It was designed for the small screen of a phone, not the big screen of a tablet.
Phone apps work for the not-so-big screen
Things are different with the Nexus 7. With Twitter, while the app stretches out more on the larger screen (compared to my phone), the screen is still small enough for it not to feel weird. I even find myself liking that with the Nexus 7, drilling into a tweet shows me information on who retweeted it or made it a favorite. The iPhone app does this, too. It's lacking on the iPad app (though overall, I still like the iPad experience).
I also continue to prefer the e-mail app on the iPad over the Android version, in how it makes use of the iPad's extra space and is just a better experience overall. Android 4.1 hasn't solved my e-mail woes there, which is sad, because it should be so simple to add a conversation view. But for those use the separate Gmail app (as many Android users do), this might not be a big issue.
Google+ works differently on either the iPad or Android tablets than on phones. Going between the iPad or the Nexus 7, I'm not feeling anything has been left out. With Facebook, I feel like the tablet experience for the Nexus 7 isn't as good as with the iPad. But it isn't horrible, either.
When it comes to Web browsing, I'm not feeling much of a difference between the iPad and the Nexus 7, thanks to the new Chrome browser, the default in the Nexus 7. That's a huge improvement from Android tablets in the past, where I've found browsing often to be sluggish or downright buggy.
That's a short recap of some of the main apps I use. Despite the smaller size of the Nexus 7, I've not been struggling with them versus the iPad. That leads me to what might happen if a iPad Mini comes out. If it really was an iPod Touch Maxi, I'm not sure it would matter much or be a drawback.
Why an iPod Touch Maxi might feel iPad-like
As I mentioned earlier, there's been much discussion already on whether it's an iPad Mini coming -- one that runs apps designed specifically for the iPad -- or instead simply a larger iPod Touch. Apple observer John Gruber wrote an excellent rundown last month pulling together various thinkings and findings out there, with him coming down on this being an iPad.
I don't think it matters. I think Apple can release a 7-to-8-inch device as either an iPod Touch or an iPad and still have a huge success, if it can keep to the $200 to $250 price range. Sales of both the Kindle Fire and the Nexus 7 already indicate that there's consumer demand for a tablet either of that size or in that price range or likely the combination of both.
As for the apps, I think that's actually a side issue. Non-tablet apps like Twitter, as I explained above, don't feel "wrong" when shown on the smaller screen size of the Nexus 7, as opposed to a larger 10-inch Android tablet. I think the same will be true for a 7-inch Apple tablet. If it does only run iPhone apps, they'll probably be OK. Moreover, users might not even notice.
How different are iPad apps?
As an experiment, I went to Apple's own iTunes Charts, to see what's currently popular.
- They were available for the iPhone
- They were available for the iPad
- They were available for Android
I'd never used either of these apps before, so my goal was to understand how different they really were from the iPhone to the iPad and from those devices to my Galaxy Nexus and Nexus 7. I did have to go for the paid edition of Where's My Perry?, however, as a free one isn't offered for Android.
Can you spot the difference with the iPad app of Where's My Perry? from the same app on other devices in the picture below?
Going from left-to-right, the game is running on the Nexus 7, the new iPad, then the iPhone 4S at the top and the Galaxy Nexus on the bottom. There is no difference. The game is identical, as best I can tell, regardless of platform or specific device. The iPad version, despite being billed separately for the iPad, doesn't even rotate into landscape mode.
Here's the NBC app:
Unlike with the Where's My Perry? app, the NBC app does act differently on the iPad than on the other devices. Chiefly, you can rotate to landscape mode. You can't do this on the iPhone or either of the Android devices. The iPad app also acts differently. In the screenshot above, clicking on an event brought up a window with more information about that event superimposed on top of the larger overall screen. With the other devices, the info window completely replaced the original screen.
It's not a huge difference. I suspect that it's hardly going to be a compelling reason to cause someone to choose the iPad over one of the other devices -- or over an iPod Touch Maxi -- just for the slight advantage of the iPad app. Other factors such as device size or cost would be more important, I suspect.
In the future, will there simply be iOS apps?
In fact, I'm wondering if we're going to see the division between iPad and iPhone apps disappear, going instead the way that Android does things, where there's one app listed that's smart enough to operate in a way that's best for a particular device.
Consider again Where's My Perry? and how it's listed in the respective markets:
Two different apps with Apple versus one on Google Play. For my comparison testing, I deliberately bought the iOS app on my iPhone. But that made the supposedly separate iPad app show as purchased for my iPad. Same app; same functionality, but artificial division.
What about iPad apps that really do operate differently? Surely they need to be listed on their own! Consider this:
In the example above, iTunes lists the Google+ app for the iPhone and iPad separately. That makes sense, since they do operate differently. But it doesn't make sense in that downloading the iPhone one to your iPad makes it work just like the iPad app works. Listing them separately is again more an artificial division than a necessary one. Over at Android market, the app is listed only once, even though it operates differently if it's on a tablet or on a phone.
Forget the apps, think content
For me, the bottom line is that it's too easy to get wrapped up in apps, what they might do, how they might work or even the number available for a particular device. It's especially easy if you're a developer or a fan of a particular app.
I continue to think that most people are not tied to some killer app, be it an app that's platform-specific (iOS versus Android) or device-specific (iPad versus iPhone). Yes, some people will have apps they must use that dictate the device they choose. But I think for many, if not most, other factors beyond apps such as device size and cost may be more important.
My previous column "Does an app store's size matter if content is the killer app?" explains this more. That column also focuses on what I think will be far more important going forward: the content we can consume on our devices.
Apple clearly believes we can happily play games, watch video, and read books on our small iPhones. Given this, the jump to a larger 7-inch or 8-inch screen poses no drawbacks and all the advantages of providing consumers another form factor they may want.
iPad Mini, iPhone Maxi -- it doesn't matter which emerges. Either will give some tough competition to the Nexus 7, which is the contender to beat.
What will be especially interesting to watch is if we do get a Nexus 10, a rumored10-inch tablet from Google. Whereas the Nexus 7 jumped into a real gap that could be exploited against Apple's product line, the iPad remains the 10-inch tablet that's tough to beat. Google's real opportunity here might not be against Apple but against other Android tablet makers.
But perhaps I'm jaded. My Samsung Tab 10.1, over a year old, is still billed as having "the latest Android Technology," that being Android 3.1. Not just billed, either. That's what it still runs, since Samsung hasn't pushed an update. As for my Android 4.0 Asus Transformer? Dead, sent for repair, after refusing to turn on.
At this point, a dependable 10-inch tablet directly from Google -- especially at a significantly lower price -- might appeal as an iPad alternative. Then again, there's the coming Microsoft Surface, offering what neither Android nor the iPad have, the ability to be a full-fledged computer. But that power may also come at a higher price.
It's going to be a interesting fall.