The recent release of new 7- and 10-inch Nexus devices earned some of the strongest reviews yet for Android tablets. And yet along with praise for the high-resolution displays and snappy processors came a familiar complaint: there aren't enough apps.
As my colleague Roger Cheng put it: "Unfortunately, it's software, and not hardware, that continues to be the key problem for Google. Android tablets have struggled to make a real impression with consumers because there is a dearth of apps built specifically for tablets on Android. While the hardware and specs are great for the gadget enthusiasts and hardcore Android crowd, most consumers would just opt for the device that can do the most."
It's a problem Google is well aware of -- and one the company thinks its new tablets may help to fix. "Part of the reason why we've invested significantly in building [the Nexus 10] is exactly so that we have more and more motivation for the developer community," Hugo Barra, director of product management for Android, told the Verge.
But will this "Field of Dreams" strategy result in substantially more apps for Android tablets? There's reason to believe that it will.Samsung is surging
Start with the rise in Android tablet sales. New IDC estimates released yesterday showed that the best-selling iPad's market share slipped from 65.5 percent in the second quarter of this year to 50.4 percent this quarter. The reason is that Android-based tablets are surging; Samsung shipped 5.1 million tablets last quarter, up 115 percent from the previous quarter and 325 percent from the same quarter last year.
At the same time, Google has continued to iterate on its Android software, creating a more polished experience that is starting to attract developers in larger numbers.
More on Nexus
But something started to change after the Google I/O developer conference in June, Squrl co-founder Mark Gray said. Using Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean) on the Galaxy Nexus and the Nexus 7 tablet, Gray and his team became more confident they could build a good product for Android devices.
"The team in general was like, now this is for real. This is finally getting there," Gray said.
Squrl is now actively working on an app for Android tablets.
EA, Gameloft come on board
Meanwhile, Android gaming got a significant boost this week when video game giant Electronic Arts announced it had developed its first games built for 10-inch screens.
Need for Speed: Most Wanted, The Sims FreePlay, Theme Park, Tetris Free and World Series of Poker are among the 13 titles that will be ready for gamers when the Nexus 10 comes out Nov. 13. That's in addition to more than 20 games EA previously made available for the Nexus 7.
Meanwhile, developer Gameloft announced it would bring 10 of it
Nick Earl, senior vice president for EA's social and mobile studios, said Android is increasingly a platform that game developers can't ignore.
"You can't argue with the volume," he said, citing the 1.3 million Android devices activated a day. "The flat-out growth of the Android platform growth is just enormous."
Earl also said that while iOS users continue to generate more revenue, the gap with Android is declining.
A ways to go
None of this is to say that Android is about to reach parity with iOS when it comes to tablet apps. Of the top 20 paid apps in Apple's App Store that are developed by third parties, only nine are available in the Google Play store. Missing titles include popular games like Bubble Guppies and Infinity Blade 2, popular marketing tie-ins like Wreck It Ralph, and productivity apps like Notability, Penultimate and GoodReader.
"The numbers aren't there yet to make it a platform that you want to bank on," said Mark Hall, founder of Remixation, which makes the ShowYou video discovery app. An Android app is on the product road map for ShowYou, Hall said -- "but that's 90 percent about the phone, and 10 percent about the tablet." In other words, it's true that developers are finding Android too big too ignore -- but at the moment they're much more impressed with its smartphone penetration than its success in the tablet world.
Still, Hall uses a Nexus 7 and calls it "a really good device." Even Android skeptics are coming around to the opportunity it presents on the tablet. But it will likely be a while yet before it's evenly matched against iOS.