Google Nexus tablet must avoid getting dragged into 'specs war'

By now you know the drill: a company releases a new tablet or smartphone that has the fastest processor, sharpest screen resolution and sleekest design of anyone else on the market.

Until two months later, that is, when another company releases a similar tablet whose specs are just slightly better than those of the previous champion. This is especially true in the Android tablet market where device manufacturers have been working overtime to pump out the latest-and-greatest hardware to briefly capture the attention of the tech media and thus garner strong sales numbers before the next top-notch Android tablet hits the shelves, whether it's the newest generation of the Samsung Galaxy Tab, the Amazon Kindle Fire or the LG Optimus.

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With this in mind, you might wonder how Google could possibly hope to succeed with its own homespun tablet that is being rumored to drop this summer. After all, Google has had relatively little success in making its own Nexus brand of Android smartphones stand out from the crowd; what makes the company think it will fare any better in the similarly crowded tablet market?

A lot of the so-called Google Nexus tablet's future success or failure could depend on whether it provides users with a unique experience that makes them feel that they're using a tablet that's unique to the Google brand instead of another Google-branded device that simply piles on more high-quality hardware but is otherwise similar to its competitors. Or put another way, the device has to feel like a Google tablet rather than just a tablet that happens to be put out by Google.

"What's missing right now is brand promise," says ABI Research analyst Jeff Orr, referring to Google's troubles in differentiating its Nexus smartphones from other Android devices. "There's not an expectation of quality, style or innovation out of it. Google's main efforts have been in search, advertising and software applications, and hardware doesn't really fit into that."

Scott Webster, the editor in chief at the Android Guys website, similarly says that hardware isn't Google's strong suit and says the company will have to add its own unique capabilities in order to stand out.

"More importantly than anything, the tablet needs to be sold on experience and capabilities and not the hardware," he says. "All hardware makers and carriers need to rely less on the specs and more on 'what it does.' Look at Apple and you see how it's done right."

So just what could a Google tablet do that would capture the public imagination? Gartner analyst Whit Andrews has three suggestions: "A reliable iOS emulator running off the default home screen, a reality-augmentation whiteboard [and] a fully featured 'Minecraft' client with mod API."

Let's take these in order: Adding an iOS emulator would certainly be a game-changer in the sense that it would give the Google tablet access to two popular mobile operating systems. At the same time, you have to wonder whether Google would really want to give Android users access to the operating system of its top competitor on one of its own devices.

A reality-augmentation program akin to what Google has been demonstrating recently in Project Glass, meanwhile, would be just the thing to set the tablet apart from its competitors since Google seems to be the only major tech vendor even close to releasing augmented-reality technology of this caliber.

And finally, having a "Minecraft" client natively installed on the device would be a smart way for Google to tie in a hugely popular game with its new tablet.

While all these are interesting ideas, Orr wonders if Google would really want to put out something that would significantly upstage its partners in the Android development coalition. After all, if Google comes out with a spectacular tablet that drives market share away from companies such as HTC, Samsung and LG, those companies might wonder why they're bothering to give Google exposure by putting so many resources into Android tablets.

"The situation is even more complicated given that Google still has to tie up the Motorola acquisition," says Orr. "In a lot of cases manufacturers may start to wonder, 'Are you my partner or are you my competitor?' ... That situation doesn't have a clear advantage for the Android system as a whole."

Brad Reed covers Google and the wireless industry for Network World. Check out his blog, Google Reed-er.

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