Will a Google tablet challenge the Kindle Fire? Or the iPad?

January 5, 2012

There are plenty of Android tablets on the market, but none have captured a portion of market share that can come close to rivaling the iPad. Right now, it looks like the most successful of all of them will be the Kindle Fire, which Amazon has modified so much that it’s hardly recognizable as an Android tablet at all.

So it might make sense for Google to jump into the tablet game, particularly after the launch of its unified tablet and smartphone platform, Ice Cream Sandwich. Last month, Google chairman Eric Schmidt was quoted by an Italian paper Corriere Della Sera as saying that Google would soon market its own tablet. Since then, there’s been a flurry of speculation around what that tablet would look like.

Schmidt’s quote promised, in part, a tablet of a very high quality. Many have interpreted that to mean that Google will try to make a top-of-the-line device to rival the iPad.

But a new report from the Taiwanese tech site Digitimes has sparked the idea that, perhaps, Google will try for its own super-cheap tablet priced to compete with the $199 fire. And while Digitimes — it’s worth remembering — has a spotty-at-best record with these kinds of rumors, the debate over whether Google will give chase to the iPad or the Kindle Fire says something interesting about the tablet market.

Right now, there are basically two models for tablet success: Apple’s and Amazon’s. And it’s not all about the company’s respective devices. Spec for spec, there’s no comparing the iPad and the Kindle Fire. If the Fire was priced even remotely near Apple’s tablet, it’d be laughed off the market. (Just take a look at what’s happened to the BlackBerry Playbook — a device that at least offers users both a camera and a hardware volume switch.)

Apple has taken the same approach with the tablet as it has with all its other devices — build something right and the customers will follow. But if the technology industry learned anything from the sudden and unexpected TouchPad fire sale, it’s that customers can overlook a device’s shortcomings for a low price. Amazon knows that and built upon what it’s learned from the Kindle to offer up its own model for the tablet. The Kindle Fire really isn’t supposed to be an iPad killer, it’s supposed to be a neat device that just so happens to get people to buy a ton of things from Amazon.

The question now is which path Google has chosen. It’s better situated to keep on with its fierce competition with Apple, especially with the Android Marketplace and its new Music store. Its previous co-branded smartphones from the Nexus line have hardly been bargain buys, but they’ve seen a lot of success. It’s a safe route.

But if, as the report indicates,Google has chosen to take on the Kindle Fire, it will be interesting to see what happens. Google simply can’t follow exactly what Amazon’s done — while it has the Android app market and its own Google Music store, the company is far from being retail-focused. To make a cheap-enough tablet, as MG Siegler pointed out, the company would likely have to rely on advertising revenue to make up the difference.

Related stories:

BlackBerry PlayBook price dropped to $299 on sale

iPad 3 release date speculation builds

Five tech predictions for 2012

Dominic Basulto | Patent Wars 2012: What to expect

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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