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Google was never really serious about tablets

Years of reboots, both literal and metaphorical

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Google’s getting out of the tablet hardware business, canceling two different tablets it was building and reassigning those employees to other projects. And as it did with the Pixel 4 rumors, the company decided to break the usual script of “we don’t comment on future products” by just up and telling Computer World and Business Insider that it planned on focusing on laptops like the Pixelbook going forward.

Don’t give Google too much credit for candor, however. As was made clear by hardware chief Rick Osterloh in a tweet, the openness was motivated by a need to assuage other manufacturers that are still making tablets with Android or ChromeOS.

I am not sure I would be comforted if I were a tablet manufacturer, though. The problems that have plagued Google’s own devices involved some self-inflicted hardware wounds, sure, but they were mere scrapes compared to what has been going on with Google’s tablet software and ecosystem.

That’s because Google’s actions show that it just doesn’t care that much about tablets. Or at least, it doesn’t care nearly as much as Microsoft and Apple do.

The 2015 Pixel C, powered by Android
The 2015 Pixel C, powered by Android

It’s too simplistic to say the company bailed on making tablet hardware because “Google always sucked at tablets,” the most common refrain I heard yesterday. It’s too simplistic — but also too true. I have used every single one of Google’s tablets — from the co-developed Motorola Xoom to the Nexus devices to the Pixel Slate. Whether they ran Android or ChromeOS, the experience was always subpar.

I won’t bore you with the history of every single tablet Google created, but as I think of them I’m struck by how many had nice hardware. The Pixel C had a silly keyboard, but the tablet itself was really nice — you could almost draw a line from its squarish vibe to the current iPad Pro.

The Nexus 7 was so popular that Android users will let out a nostalgic sigh if you mention it, like they’re remembering their first crush. It was good, but not because it was a good tablet. The Nexus 7 came out right before the era of big phones and it felt like using a big phone.

The Nexus 7 was beloved, but it wasn’t very tablet-like

The 2012 Nexus 7, powered by Android
The 2012 Nexus 7, powered by Android

That’s instructive: though every Google tablet had some hardware pluses to go along with the minuses, every single one of them had software that didn’t work well on a big tablet screen. The Nexus 7 was beloved because it was the least tablet-y tablet Google made.

I am sure that individuals and teams at Google were (and are) earnestly dedicated to making Android or ChromeOS tablets a reality, and you can see evidence of that dedication in details like the Pixel Slate’s display or the care put into making the miniature, Android-based swiping keyboard work on ChromeOS.

But those flashes of brilliance can’t make up for Google’s institutional neglect of Android and ChromeOS on tablets. If you go to any Google IO developer conference, you can just compare the number of sessions about Android on phones or for web developers to those for tablets. The difference is stark.

Tablets simply aren’t a priority for Google. Not being a company-wide priority isn’t necessarily a problem for most consumer products — lots of little experiments at Google find success. But I think that when you’re trying to build a platform, not being a priority is the same as unbeing. It’s a death sentence.

It has meant that there has never been enough effort put towards solving the software problems that have sunk all of Google’s tablet efforts. The first and most obvious is the one everybody always cites: the apps were never really redesigned for big screens.

Google never enticed developers to make tablet apps

Every year, every review would point out the app issue and hope that it would get better next year. I collated a bunch of these back in 2017 under the headline “Maybe Android tablet apps will be better this year.” The criticism that Android apps were bad on the big screen and the hope that they’d get better is in nearly every Android tablet review you can find in the past decade.

Spoiler alert: Android apps never got better on tablets.

Creating a rich and vibrant app ecosystem is hard. Very few platform companies pull it off. There are probably a thousand reasons that Google never managed to convince Android developers to put in the work to make their apps better on tablets. Maybe it couldn’t sell enough early tablets to build momentum. Maybe the tools for creating tablet apps were either subpar or changed too often (or both). Maybe the average Android tablet user just wasn’t asking for better apps because they weren’t really pushing their tablets. Maybe there was no money in it. Maybe nobody believed Google would support tablets for long enough.

Probably, though, it was all of the above. Solving any one of those problems requires passion, skill, and dedication from a small team. Solving all of them requires support from the entire company.

HTC Nexus 9
The 2014 Nexus 9, powered by Android

Trying to understand what the heck Google was doing with its tablet strategy was always hard. But once you start to look at what happened to Android (and later ChromeOS) tablets through the lens of neglect, you can make a lot more sense out of what once looked like inexplicably incoherent strategies.

Every year saw Google trying to do something to jump start its ecosystem. The UI changed, then it changed again. The form factors changed. Tablets got bigger, then smaller, then cheaper, then more expensive. It was literally scattershot: trying everything in the hope that something would hit the target.

Ultimately that brought us to last year’s Pixel Slate, the latest strategic reboot. This time, the new idea was that Android apps could run on ChromeOS. You’d get the benefit of a real desktop browser and mobile apps.

The 2018 Pixel Slate, powered by ChromeOS
The 2018 Pixel Slate, powered by ChromeOS
Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

I loved the concept, but the execution was terrible. A user interface that felt snappy and easy in laptop mode morphed into a buggy, laggy fiasco as soon as you disconnected the keyboard. It was all the more infuriating because the Pixelbook laptop was great. It was a stunningly simple and clarified design married to powerful specs. I still use mine every day.

I don’t know the root cause of why tablet mode on ChromeOS was so terrible, but I do know that I have spent the past three years watching Google fail to solve it. I can’t help but think a company that really felt it was important to get tablets right would have applied the necessary resources to fix it.

I am, of course, writing this all on an iPad Pro. I’ve avoided bringing it up because I don’t think there is a causal connection between the iPad’s success and Google’s tablet failure.

But it is relevant to Google’s decision to stop making tablet hardware: the iPad Pro is so far ahead and accelerating so quickly, it would take a miracle for Google to catch up. That’s fine, but it also must be embarrassing to put something out there that so plainly is on a different level.

Apple may have caught plenty of well-deserved guff for making the first iPad feel like little more than a big iPhone. But Apple also stuck to a strategy that hasn’t wildly swung around from year to year. It has diligently applied technical resources to the OS and support for the app ecosystem. It has made the iPad a priority.

The 2018 Surface Pro 6, powered by Windows 10
The 2018 Surface Pro 6, powered by Windows 10
Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge
The 2018 iPad Pro, powered by iOS
The 2018 iPad Pro, powered by iOS
Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Microsoft, too, recognized that it needed to figure out how to make computing on a tablet work. For all its misses with the original Surface tablets, Microsoft knew that failing to move Windows into a touchscreen future was an existential problem. The focus on fixing it eventually brought us to Windows 10 and the excellent Surface devices the company sells today.

Android, Chrome, and ChromeOS were created in part because Google felt it would be an existential threat to its business if it didn’t participate in those ecosystems. Google needed to (respectively) not be locked out of smartphones, ensure the web wasn’t captured by its competitors, and find an inroad on laptops. With tablet hardware, the company apparently believes the stakes are now apparently lower.

It’s definitely a rational decision, at least for the time being. But if Apple and Microsoft are right about tablets, it could also look like a shortsighted one. Without its own hardware to focus on, what pressure will Google feel to ensure its software ecosystem works well on tablets?

The idea that any company has a Master Plan to Create The Future is a fantasy. Still, Apple sure does a good job spinning that tale. Even if you don’t agree that the iPad is “the future of computing,” you still understand what Apple is going for. Do you know what Google is going for with tablets? Have you ever?

Google isn’t really a hardware company at the end of the day. Instead, Google’s Master Plan to Create the Future involves a lot of AI and the Google Assistant. It’s trying to put those things everywhere: in your phone, on the web, in your kitchen, and on your TV. Maybe it’s not a problem that Google doesn’t have a coherent plan for its software on tablets — but that’s an awfully big maybe.