Google’s annual I/O developer event kicked off today, at which it made some announcements that came as little surprise to anyone. Android 4.1 Jelly Bean and the Nexus 7 tablet each took their bows before the assembled crowd, alongside the product of the long-whispered-about Tungsten project, the little bowling ball of an Android A/V system called the Nexus Q.
This piece is about the tablet, but … can I be honest? I find the software improvements and new features in Jelly Bean and the bold hardware of the Nexus Q to be much more interesting than anything that came out of the Nexus 7 segment of the announcement. Following the pattern of the leaks we’ve been seeing for a few days, the tablet news was rather underwhelming, from a hardware perspective. The slate’s announcement was prefaced by some pre-hype from Android’s Product Manager Hugo Barra, with this aspirational assertion:
It’s always been the goal of the Nexus program to privide you with the best of the Google experience. We partnered with a great company – Asus- to help us build just that device.
This came on the heels of a fairly in-depth set of announcements about the improvements made to the Google Play Store, enhancements like movie purchases and magazines. It would have made much more sense for Barra to say that the Nexus 7 provides the best of the Google Play experience, because that’s what the new device looks like to my eye: the best-yet window into Google’s online content store.
Yes, as many expected, the newest high-profile Android tablet, and the first to receive Google’s vaunted “Nexus” branding, is a direct competitor to the Amazon Kindle Fire.
And in terms of the spec sheet itself, it’s a worthy contender. Indeed, it outpaces the Kindle Fire in nearly every measurable sense. Where the Fire is a thick, heavy, portrait-edition clone of the Blackberry PlayBook, the Nexus 7 weighs less and features a sleek casing. Where the Fire’s custom fork of Android often staggers and stutters in response to touch, version 4.1 Jelly Bean seems to run smoothly in the demos we’ve seen- thanks, no doubt, to the “Project Butter” improvements we’ve heard about. And then there’s the improved sensor package, higher-resolution display, and broader range of storage options.
The Nexus 7′s improved CPU, with its much-ballyhooed “twelve-core GPU,” will combine with the gyroscope, accelerometer, and compass to offer a much more complete gaming experience than the Kindle Fire ever could. They’ll reach outside of the entertainment sphere as well, powering a new version of Google Maps for the Nexus 7 that will allow a Street View-like glimpse inside places of business, like bars, giving users a preview before they commit to a watering hole.
There’s a new YouTube app featuring improvements in higher-resolution viewing. The Google Currents aggregator now features on-the-fly text translation. With expanded Maps functionality even in offline mode, users will be able to navigate around an entire city even with no data connection – and thanks to Jelly Bean, they’ll be able to dictate text while offline as well. The Nexus 7 will be the first mobile device to ship with the Chrome browser as a stock offering, further tightening the bonds between user and cloud. This is all really cool stuff, and it’s exciting to see all of it implemented in one Android device.
But then there’s the features that are lacking. Cellular data connectivity isn’t there. There’s no rear-facing camera (our editor-in-chief Brandon Miniman likes this, but I’m not so sure). But more damning than anything else is the crushing, crippling lack of compelling Android tablet apps.
There was no mention of enhanced third-party app support at this event. While Google (presumably) continues to entice developers to code large-scale apps for Android tablets, it seems to be taking a different tack with this device. Specifically, Mountain View looks to be targeting its efforts at highlighting the Nexus 7′s superiority over the Kindle Fire. The magazine additions and other improvements to Google Play and Currents are obviously a huge part of this strategy, but we saw other hints of it at the announcement. Most notable is the home screen, which takes a few pages right out of Amazon’s book. “When you power on the device, your content is front and center,” said Android Engineering director Chris Yerga. And indeed, in a full-screen widget titled “My Library,” Google does look to be delivering an experience very similar to the Kindle Fire’s, but streaked with Google Play’s holo-pastel hues.
So the new, exciting Android tablet ecosystem is still yet to come. The thing is, Google has the time to waste, because of how they’re positioning this. Instead of saying “here’s the next great Android tablet,” it gets to say “here’s something way better than the Kindle Fire.” Then it gets to talk up all the points of superiority the Nexus 7 enjoys over its Amazonian kin.
Amazon’s still hugely important, of course; it gave Google a poke in the ribs with the Kindle Fire, and its Amazon App Store is a big deal. The rumored Kindle Fire 2 coming down the pipe soon will also keep this fight going fiercely. And the consumers who’ll be able to snap up a Nexus 7 for $199 or $249 have Amazon to thank for kicking off the price war in the tablet space to begin with. That’s an insanely good price for a tablet with the Nexus 7′s feature set.
So what am I complaining about?
Well, while I admire Google’s savvy in changing the conversation from blockbuster Android tablets to midrange devices, I don’t like the effect it’s had. I don’t like that the halo announcement at this year’s I/O, the source of weeks of rumors and leaks, is essentially a well-specced mid-tier product based on a pretty but non-app-optimized ecosystem. I don’t like the casing design, which is as uninspired as its rebadged roots suggest.
In short: I don’t like reactive products. I was impressed by the Kindle Fire because Amazon was using it to do something different; it changed the tablet landscape by popularizing the 7-inch form factor, introducing its own fork of Android with a custom UI, and shattering the price floor. While the Nexus 7 will do almost everything better than the Kindle Fire, it’s still a responsive product. It’s an “oh yeah?” reply, a competing device that’s more capable, but less impressive because it lacks bravado. There’s no boldness to it. That would be okay from someone like HTC or another OEM trying to make a name for itself in tablets, but this is Google. It’s capable of so much more than this middle-of-the-road offering.
Does it give consumers a cost-effective way to break in to tablet ownership? Yes. Will it do what other midrange tablets do, and do it better? Probably. Will it sell very well? Almost certainly. But it’s not a terribly exciting product. It’s not a game-changer.
They can’t all be blockbusters, of course, but I was expecting something a little more impressive from Google for its first Nexus tablet.
Google I/O livestream photos via The Verge