Android Apps and the Honeycomb Holdup
Android Honeycomb, the version of the mobile OS built specifically for tablet devices, was first rolled out many months ago. Several Honeycomb tablets are on store shelves. Yet the number of Android apps built specifically for Honeycomb remains relatively small compared to the tens of thousands of iPad apps Apple claims. What's the holdup?
07/26/11 5:00 AM PT
Android Honeycomb tablets are now on store shelves and vendor websites. Six months from Honeycomb's release, tablet makers have finally optimized their hardware to fit the new made-for-tablets OS version to their larger-than-smartphone screens.
But where are the apps? Buyers of shiny new 8- and 10-inch touchscreen Android tablets suffer from a glaring lack of Android 3.0 -- aka "Honeycomb" -- apps specifically designed to use the increased functionality of the latest tablet-sized OS. Consumers now enjoy a growing number of tablet choices other than the iPad. But the Android market comes nowhere near matching Apple's claim of 100,000 apps made specifically for the iPad.
Tablet developers are promising consumers, however, that Honeycomb-quality apps are on their way. And if you believe the hype, these apps will have matching screen resolution. That means Android users will not see blurry interfaces or apps that sit in a tiny window in the center of a big screen as often happens with current Android smartphone apps that run on the tablets.
"It's a similar pattern to what we saw when the iPad first came out. Clearly, there is a lack of apps that are optimized for the Android tablets. We already see this changing quite a bit," Amit Rohatgi, principal architect for mobile at MIPS, told LinuxInsider.
From an app developer's viewpoint, the situation facing the Honeycomb release mimics similar sluggish starts of any new technology. Until the dust settles, app writers have little impetus to rush Honeycomb apps to market.
But by the end of this year, the Android app market will clearly explode, Rohatgi said.
"We are already seeing it happen in Asia. It is falling to the local developers to bring forward applications for those devices," he explained.
The scarcity of Honeycomb-specific apps has something to do with the way the OS was released. Google released the first- and second-generation Android code almost immediately. This created a feeding frenzy for apps as Android phones proliferated.
"Google started out withholding the Honeycomb code from a lot of device makers. This is still the case. Google started out targeting the Honeycomb code specifically for the tablet. In the past Google would release code as open source within four weeks," Kevin Kitagawa, marking director for digital homes for MIPS, told LinuxInsider.
This strategy was Google's way to prevent fragmentation of the Android platform. That plan seems to be based on the notion that only developers who agreed to support both the tablet and the smartphone would get the Honeycomb code, he said.
MIPS is not an app developer. The company provides OEMs with processor IPs. Even so, MIPS had to sign Google's anti-fragmentation agreement to get an early access license, said Kitagawa.
More Push Needed
The current state of Android's Honeycomb market compared to iPad's offerings might be an opportunity for Android to become better than the Apple App Store, according to Giles Nugent, financial technology expert at SAE Institute. He has over 20 apps for iPad in the App Store but so far is not developing for the Honeycomb platform.
"I haven't found it worthwhile to develop apps for the Android tablet market because there aren't that many people who buy them or use them," Nugent told LinuxInsider.
That view, he contends, speaks to the general condition of the Honeycomb market today. Consider iPhone versus Android phones.
"Obviously Android is exploding fast. Android is a great market. But some of its weaknesses are magnified by the user base that you have," he said.
Leveling the Landscape
The pre-Honeycomb Android market has been plagued with apps that work on some phones and tablet devices but not on others. Andorid 3.0, or Honeycomb, will correct that issue. The hardware is now in place.
"This will encourage app developers to start doing one or two things or both together. They will either start developing apps for the Honeycomb tablets or start migrating their existing apps to higher resolutions," suggested Rohatgi.
Apple is going to continue being the dominant player in the tablet marketplace for a period of time. But that will change, according to both Rohatgi and Kitagawa. In a short period of time, there are tons of OEMs out there who will start to turn out devices.
Some evidence of better-performing apps for Honeycomb is seen in recent notes Google put on its website. Google appears to have standardized specs about pixel density and settings for certain parameters for differing device sizes.
"That alone will drive developers to create apps for paid and advertising-based support. It is a pure money game so they can get more eyeballs on it," said Rohatgi.
Google's Android blog recently announced the next upgrade of Android will have a button to re-size an app's interface on a tablet. Is that the cure, or is it just a temporary solution?
Maybe and Maybe Not
"That is part of the way there. It may be all of the way there. It will come down to seeing it is believing it, due to the second part of that solution," said Nugent.
As an app developer, he needs to know how it re-sizes. For instance, does it just stretch everything? Or can the developer dictate how it does it between the phone and the tablet?
"So just stretching it is a help. But the real issue is, how does it stretch things?" Nugent noted.
More To It
Not only is the pixel count important. The process Honeycomb will use is essential.
For example, let's say you are playing "Angry Birds." The ratio of the screen X:Y on a phone is not going to be the same as on a tablet. On an iPhone, is it 2:3. On a tablet it is 3:4. The width is three-fourths of the height, Nugent explained.
Secondly, it would help if it did the stretching automatically for you. So the user experience isn't necessarily as good, he said.
Is this a real solution, or just a half-measure? It seems like it would be a one-up on the way iPad handles iPhone apps -- they look highly pixelated when expanded to full screen. But running a phone app on a tablet is still different than using a tablet app on a tablet, regardless of whether its appearance has been cleaned up.
For example, since tablet apps are designed with more screen real estate in mind, they're capable of offering more detail and finer interfaces.
"I don't know that that is a show stopper. But it makes you wonder what other issues will evolve. It is an unknown. Certainly up until now that has been a problem," said Nugent.
Does Core Count?
Another issue still unresolved is whether Honeycomb tablets will come pre-installed with a core set of specifically optimized apps for Android 3. Unlike desktop and laptop computers, OEMs have yet to settle on a standard library of installed apps. That is also true for the iPad.
"I find that that there are some core apps on the iPad, but most of it is user-selected. It is more about custom apps for the user. It is just a mobile device just like the phone. Each user tweaks it," said Nugent
On the desktop and laptop computers -- either Mac or PC -- the core products are geared to labor-intense data entry. That is not what you do with smartphones and tablets, he added.
Tablets so far rely on a random set of applications. The question, as Nugent sees it, becomes, what is the range of available products for the user to enjoy on a tablet versus the iPad, and how well do those applications work?
"I hear no noise about the Android tablet. I hear a lot of noise about the Android phones in terms of available apps," he said.
Related to this issue of Honeycomb-specific apps is the current lack of a consistent marketplace for Android tablets and phones, noted Nugent. Consumers don't want to have to hunt very hard for apps.
"So that is just a huge advantage for the Apple Store. And until the Android -- and Amazon is trying to do it -- consolidates into a single market store delivery platform, it will be very difficult for people to get comfortable with Android tablets," warned Nugent.
Discontent about a not-yet-there store of Honeycomb-specific apps may not be as critical for consumers as other factors. The software and user interface issue will be resolved by the developer ecosystem within the next year or so, according to Nizar Assanie, vice president of research at IE Market Research Corporation in Canada.
"The real crucial issues are the pricing, sales channel and product differentiation issues around Android tablet devices," Assanie told LinuxInsider.
For example, his company's surveys show that 65 percent of U.S. consumers feel that price is an important issue when they are making a decision to purchase a tablet device. The average price consumer expect to pay is only about US$250, down from over $550 only one year ago, he said.
According to responses from 1,500 U.S. consumers, the number of available applications is one of the three most important features to only 25 percent of U.S. consumers. That is nowhere near the purchase cost or data plan contract flexibility in deciding on a tablet purchase, concluded Assanie.