Android device makers around the world are anticipating great things from the next version of Google's mobile software, and they need the boost. Apple has a strong head start with sales of its popular iPad, while the App Store and iTunes give it apps and content, to boot.
But after a year of prodding Google, device makers think they've finally won with the upcoming "Honeycomb" upgrade to Android, which is expected by the end of the first quarter and is supposed to be the first version of the software designed for tablets instead of smartphones.
Earlier this year, for example, Samsung Electronics, had to fight to have the Android Market app, which connects users to the software's online treasure trove of over 150,000 apps, on its Galaxy Tab, according to one executive who asked not to be named due to his company's close relationship with Google.
At the time that Samsung was developing the Galaxy Tab to use Android, Google was struggling to decide if it wanted to put its upcoming Chrome OS in tablets and make Android exclusive to smartphones. The Chrome OS better fits Google's Cloud strategy, the executive said.
A Google spokesperson declined to comment on the issue.
Google's decision to make a tablet-friendly version of Android became a must after Apple launched its groundbreaking iPad, analysts say.
"Earlier in the year, Google probably thought that Chrome OS might be the right platform for tablets. However, the importance of the compatibility of apps across smartphones and tablets, evident from the iPad experience, has created the need for Google to ensure that the commercial success of apps can be preserved in the tablet proposition," said Martin Bradley, an analyst at Strategy Analytics.
Apple sold nearly 8 million iPads through the end of September, making it one of the hottest products of the year. (That tally is from official Apple figures from its quarterly earnings conference call and doesn't include holiday sales.)
By being first, Apple has set the tone for the entire market. Tablet makers need to put out the same OS for their smartphones and tablets so apps can be shared on either device. Even more important, apps specifically designed for tablets need to be made available, to take advantage of the larger screens, more powerful processors and expanded memory on board.
Of the 300,000 or so apps available to Apple iPhone and iPod Touch users, 40,000 are specifically designed for the iPad, and they are marketed that way on Apple's App Store.
By contrast, Google's Android Market does not offer any tablet-only apps to users, only smartphone apps. However, upstart Appslib is filling the void with its own tablet-only app store for Android lovers. Appslib is not affiliated with Google.
The importance of tweaking a version of Android specifically for tablets and putting tablet-only apps on the Android Market cannot be overstated.
Companies expect tablet sales to reach up to 60 million devices in 2011, with Android and Apple's iOS the leading software in the devices.
Market researcher Ovum expects Android and Apple's iOS to take about 71% of the total market for tablets and other mobile Internet devices by 2015, while the also-rans, BlackBerry tablet OS, Hewlett-Packard's WebOS, Intel's and Nokia's MeeGo, and Microsoft Windows making up the rest of the share.
"Its difficult to see past iOS and Android in tablets at the moment," said Tony Cripps, principal analyst of devices and platforms at Ovum.
Competition between Apple and Android's backers is so intense that lawsuits are already flying back and forth between them.
But infighting in the Android camp could be the worst problem at the moment. Companies gripe about a number of issues in working with Google.
"Android is not yet ready for pads and the user experience on currently available products is suffering," said Tim Coulling, analyst at Canalys. He also predicted it will become a leading OS in the pad/tablet space once Honeycomb is out.
There is also some controversy about how Honeycomb is to be launched.
Google worked with device maker Motorola and chip maker Nvidia on a tablet device designed for Honeycomb, which was shown off at the D: Dive Into Mobile Conference in San Francisco early this month.
The Internet giant's penchant for working with a specific device maker and chip maker on each major design change for Android has gone on for at least the past three upgrades to Android.
With version 2.2 of Android, dubbed Froyo, Google worked with smartphone maker HTC and chip designer Qualcomm to create the Nexus One. In Android 2.3, Gingerbread, Google worked with Samsung Electronics on both the phone design and chips, Samsung's Hummingbird processor, for the Nexus S.
But the strategy is unfair to other Android device makers because it gives the chosen ones about a four- to five-month head start over others, said Glen Burchers, head of marketing at Freescale Semiconductor's consumer chip division.
"This puts processor guys at a big disadvantage and the system guys at such a big disadvantage," he said. "The industry is not thrilled with this game Google is playing."
Don't mistake this frustration for mutiny. Nobody is talking about dumping Android.
Overall, companies using Android in smartphones and tablets are tickled with Google's development efforts. What they wanted earlier this year was a speedier decision to use Android in tablets so they could put out iPad-rivals ahead of the holiday season.
What device makers are really saying is: Come on Google. Help us compete against Apple. Unleash the dogs of war with a tablet version of the Android OS and tablet apps on the Android Market.
Google appears to have had a troubling time with Android device developers over the past year. Part of the issue is diverging strategies. Device makers want to win market share in product categories, from netbooks and smartbooks to tablets, while Google remains cloud-centric.
One thing holding device makers back from using Android as they please, since it is open source software, is Google's certification effort.
Any company that fails to follow Google's rules will not be certified, meaning they can't use Google's name or logo on the product or in advertising, nor do they have access to apps in the Android Market, or gain other performance extras and software upgrades offered via certification. The Google name alone means immediate brand recognition.
The lack of camaraderie in the Android camp has hurt Google and device makers alike. While Google mulled a decision on Android versus Chrome OS in netbooks, Windows ran away with that popular device category. In tablets, Apple has run off to a huge head start, while the Android camp nearly failed to put out strong rival devices before the holidays until Samsung pushed for app support in the Galaxy Tab.
"Android represents a way to safeguard Google's position given that the tablet market has now arrived," said Bradley.
Android may also ultimately pave the way for the Chrome OS in mobile devices.
Ovum's Cripps believes Chrome OS and Android will converge over time, "especially in terms of bringing the Chrome Web browser to Android. The Chrome browser is really the heart of Chrome OS from a developer perspective and it would make sense to bring it to Android," he said.
Now if the Android camp can find a way to work together better, they may give Apple a run for its money in the tablet market.