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Dear future Android tablet users…

Filed in: General, Sun, May 16 2010 19:54 PT

So, I own an iPad. (And here I am working for Adobe. You may point and laugh… now.) I’ve had it out in public—including in Europe, where I might as well have worn an “ask me about the iPad” t-shirt. I’ve got the pattern down now: someone does a double-take, and I think, “Oh, shit. Here we go again. ‘Yes, I couldn’t resist. I bought it because (reasons), and I’m (mood) with it.’”

I enjoy using my iPad (nicknamed “killer”, by the way), mostly. iBooks and the Kindle app have been perfectly stable, which is good, because the moment my ebook reader crashes, it’s not a serviceable ebook reader. It’s the kind of thing you need to have nailed down.

I’ve got about four pages of downloaded applications, only one of which consists of go-to apps: Twitter client, media streamer, remote keyboard and mouse. The rest are kind of a blur and a distraction. Games, magazines, utilities. I could do without them. That one page covers 95% of what I want to do.

What I can’t do is listen to NPR while I browse my email, and while I’ve been promised that will change this fall, I’m not a patient man. Nor am I the kind of fanboi who’s going to say the promise of multitasking tomorrow is as good as multitasking today.

There are about four things I expect out of a tablet: I want a good-looking screen, HD-quality video, the ability to run the occasional app in the background, and I want it to run all day on a single charge. The iPad meets two and a half of those requirements, if we take off a half-point for only playing 720p video.

Here’s the thing, though. Of my four main requirements, precisely zero of them are unique to Apple. Between now and Christmas, there are going to be dozens of Android-based tablets flooding the market. They’ll all be at or below the price point of the iPad. And you’ll be able to pick the winners fairly easily: they’re the ones that meet all four of my criteria.

So let’s say for the sake of argument that things shake out this way, and by the time you’re in an L-tryptophan coma, your Black Friday ads are loaded with non-iPad options. And let’s say the following morning you sneak into a Best Buy at 5am, scratch and claw your way to one of these devices, and start browsing the Android Market.

You are now invested in the success of Android.

When someone does a double-take in a coffee shop, you’re going to think, “Oh, shit. Here we go again. ‘Yes, I looked at the iPad, but I went with this because (reasons), and I’m (mood) with my purchase.’” The reasons are largely fixed in the hardware, so once you’ve rolled your Gooblet off the lot, you already have your answer to that. How you feel about your purchase, however, is going to depend largely on what you can do with it, and that has a lot to do with what software is available to you, and whether or how well it works.

There’s a tendency to be more forgiving of open-source platforms. Your Free Software Foundation adherents will insist that it’s better to have products that are clearly inferior because free-as-in-speech is better. But try telling that to your mom when she’s trying to make head or tail of your tablet while she maps out the nearest Apple Store.

For Android tablets to succeed, users of the platform need to fight the instinct to apologize for its shortcomings and that of its software. You need to be vocal, even brutal, about the problems you find. If an open-source product doesn’t cut it, call it out. If a payware application crashes left and right, let ‘em have it.

The tablet market is not the same as the Linux hobbyist market. The vast majority won’t be compiling their own apps, much less rewriting them. They shouldn’t be expected to. As a result, developers of tablet apps need to be very responsive to their users. If you want the Android platform to take off on tablets, the applications can’t be just great for Android apps. They need to be great apps, period. No editing text files, no byzantine dependencies, no open-source shovelware.

You, the user, should use all available avenues to establish the bar for your expected user experience, and hold developers to it. On the iPhone/iPad platform, ostensibly, the App Store serves as a quality filter. (In reality, there are mountains of shitty little applications, but there, the App Store at least does the service of letting us one-star them.) In the Android Market, users need to be just as brutal, demanding and vocal as they are in the App Store. Android tablets are not going to succeed by being almost as good as iPads, but, like, less evil. The best way to make them successful is to be very clear about where the system, the hardware and the applications fall short. The best way to make them fail is to pretend they’re good enough, when they’re not.

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