How can Google make Android truly Tablet-Worthy? Here are 5 ways

Posted on 28 May 2010 by Android

Like it or not, the early success of the iPad has opened up a new category of devices. Quite a few people find themselves wanting a “third screen” in their lives. While the iPad may end up being the ideal device for some, others may feel too constrained by the Apple way of doing things. One often cited alternative to the iPad is the Android platform. We’ve even seen a few prototype Android tablets show up at trade shows and press conferences. We can’t help but feel like a lot of manufacturers are going to get the tablet experience all wrong. If the first batch of Android tablets out of the gate end up flopping, it could set back the platform.

There are actually a number of ways Google can improve Android for the tablet form factor. We’ll evaluate five of the most important ones.

Remove mandatory hardware buttons

We cannot deny the appeal of having hardware buttons on a smartphone. They are convenient because they are always available to the user to activate functions without taking up valuable screen real estate. On a phone, that’s one of the top priorities, but a tablet has much more room on the screen. When you think about the way a tablet is used, having multiple fixed buttons may not make as much sense.

An on-screen system for accessing menus and navigating a UI is adaptable, and can be designed with a tablet in mind. If you rotate a phone in your hand, the hardware buttons are still easily accessible without changing how you are holding the device. On a tablet, if you rotate from landscape to portrait those hardware buttons could suddenly be a few inches out of reach.

We are not calling for the abolition of hardware buttons on tablets; we’re simply suggesting that the UI designers of these future tablets cannot rely on them exclusively. New APIs may need to exist to facilitate this capability. The iPad had this mostly worked out right way. While navigating within an app, there are no hardware buttons to interact with. All the necessary elements are on the screen. Thus they can be designed with a larger tablet interface in mind. You only have to reach for a hardware button to close an app.

Leverage widgets for the lock screen

Android has a truly compelling widget framework, and this definitely needs to be a major part of any Android tablet effort. The notion of having relevant information presented instantly is a big win. You should not have to hunt for an app just to get weather or see your appointments. This is clearly a place where the iPad UI isn’t going. The home screen is still a grid of icons and the lock screen is completely devoid of useful function.

An Android-based tablet could easily display contextual information on the lock screen. Google should integrate this option into Android, as even phones could benefit from this. Using widgets on the home screen might need a few UI changes, however. The Android widget interface uses a 4×4 grid to arrange widgets and icons. With a larger display, there needs to be better use of the screen real estate. Some of the early tablets we’ve seen are running a basic stock Android home launcher. This makes space feel wasted by having giant widgets and shortcuts taking up too much room.

Narrow the internal hardware spec

When you’re using a tablet device, it’s important that it be comfortable to use. One of the most important predictors of this will be the type of hardware it is running on. The iPad uses Apple’s specially designed A4 processor running at 1GHz. This is an ARM core design that’s much more like mobile chips like the Snapdragon or OMAP than it is like x86 parts. This offers a few benefits.

An ARM-based chip will mean a device that doesn’t get as hot. You don’t want a tablet that gets as hot as a computer, even a netbook can get pretty toasty. The iPad manages to remain fairly cool, even after prolonged use, and it doesn’t require fans. An Atom based tablet is likely to need bigger heatsinks, and maybe even a few fans. This means it will also be heavier. For example, the Android-based WeTab is estimated to weigh in at nearly 2 pounds. The iPad is only 1.5 pounds, and after a while even it can feel heavy. No one is going to want to use an uncomfortable tablet for long periods of time.

Get devs working on tablet-specific apps

Android on the smartphone side is really starting to look good from an application standpoint. With over 50,000 apps, many of the things people need are there. But a tablet is a completely different interface, and comes with its own unique challenges for apps. It seems a shame to waste the growing base of apps for Android, but they probably won’t work well on a tablet.

Look at scaled up apps on the iPad. They often result in comically large buttons and a lot of wasted UI space. The interfaces made sense on a device with a 3.5-inch screen, but not so much on a 9 or 10-inch screen. Apple told developers about the iPad in advance in order to get high resolution apps in place for launch. Also take note of Google’s Google TV demo where they scaled up Android apps to the Google TV interface. While it technically worked, it wasn’t an effective use of space. Google is usually very hands-off with Android, but we suggest they start working with the developer base now to get out ahead of the coming tablets.

Google needs to make it clear that devs should consider making applications that are designed for a larger interface. As soon as they are available, Google should start handing out Android tablets like candy to app developers; much as they did with Nexus Ones recently. Another way to go about this would be to hold a version of the Android Developer’s Challenge specifically for tablet-ready apps.

Emphasize multitasking

Android has always been a multitasking operating system. It was one of the platform’s earliest differentiators, and something that attracted many power users. A tablet will probably have more than enough horsepower to run multiple apps with no problem, but we feel like the user interface for multitasking should be cleaned up.

In Android, when you return to the home screen, your apps continue to run in the background. You can easily return to recent apps by bringing up the recent apps list. Android will display a series of small icons in the center of the screen for each app. Depending on the version, you’ll see either six or eight apps. This works fine on a small screen, but with more space this makes less sense. Just making these icons larger would look silly. Adding more icons would be pointless as there are only so many apps that will be retained in memory by the OS at any one time.

Instead of just making this larger, users should be presented with screens of what the apps are doing (or were last doing). This would be a more WebOS way of doing things, and it would work on a larger device. Google could lay the groundwork for this in Android. In Android 2.1 they added the ability to see thumbnails of home screens for faster navigation. A similar system could be built for app switching. It might need to be scaled back a bit for phones, but  a more visual way of multitasking would dramatically enhance tablet experience.

There are going to some Android tablets that don’t work out. With so many of these devices on the horizon, it’s inevitable that there will be those that simply scale up the Android interface without concern for how a tablet is used. The iPad has proven to be a device people want, but Android has the potential to leverage what is making it a successful smartphone OS to grab a piece of this new tablet market. Do you think Android can make it as a tablet OS? Where do you think it needs changes to be able to compete with the iPad?

written by Ryan Whitwam @ tested.com
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