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The other tablets

Analysts have to count things in order to measure value. It sounds easy but it can be tricky. As I pointed out with PCs vs. iPads, if you count an iPad as a PC you can get into a lot of trouble with your clients. But if you don’t you end up directing them away from confronting an existential threat. Only very rarely is a market report published in contradiction to widely held sustaining beliefs. More often than not analysts bow to the source of their paychecks and in so doing show their rear end to the truth.

This comes up again now with respect to how to count tablets. Consider that there is little difference in architecture, software or design between an iPhone and an iPad. They run the same OS, use the same microprocessors and have similar communication methods, inputs and sensors. However they are considered completely different products and counted as part of separate markets. The only physical attribute that differs is the screen size. So we have to conclude that the size of the screen is a huge determinant factor in deciding whether a product is a tablet but not a smartphone (or music player).

But what about tablets themselves? Their screen sizes vary widely. A 10″ screen is certainly a tablet device, but a 4″ screen certainly isn’t. Where is the boundary exactly? It seems that a 7″ device is still a tablet but a 5″ may not be. The Dell Streak 5 device is presumably not a tablet. The arguments then descend into an arbitrary definition of tablet based on whether it fits in one hand or in a bag of a certain size.

This begins to sound academic. Why should it matter what size is or isn’t a valid tablet? Buyers are not in the market for screen sizes. They are in the market for products that can be hired to do jobs or address pain in their lives. So as far as consumers are concerned, these categories are meaningless. If you want to design something you’d better segment according to jobs to be done.

However, buyers are not the target audience for the analyst. Nor are product designers (hopefully anyway.) Part of the reasoning of offering market research is that it presumably helps ecosystem participants (vendors, developers, retailers, etc.) decide where to invest their time and money. They are the target audience. They don’t spend their lives reading tech blogs. For them it’s important to understand “which way the wind is blowing” and that’s where an analyst should be helpful with data.

But then if we are to measure ecosystems, we have more difficulties.

The iOS ecosystem is pretty well understood. Apple publishes the number of devices it sells and the number of apps on its store and downloads, etc. We can assume Microsoft will do the same with Windows 8 as they do already for Windows in general.

For Android, it’s a challenge. Google measures activations, but that may not cover the actual units sold. Google admits that it does not know how many Android devices are sold or even how many are for sale. It’s in the nature of open source that it’s not controlled and hence not measurable.

But analysts still try. Consider the estimate that about 27% of all “tablets” shipped are Android. That’s not something Google helped with. Google can report the number of activations of a certain version of the OS, but they themselves don’t know what the device looks like or what size screen it has. A device vendor can put any version of Android on a device of any size. To find out how many tablets run Android, you need to try to estimate “bottom up” by adding the output from various vendors.

However, it’s clear that a large number of these devices are not exactly Android. Consider what  Kevin C. Tofel writes for GigaOm:

I asked Strategy Analytics to clarify both of those points and received the following email response from Neil Mawston, the analyst who wrote the report: ”Yes, the press release refers to shipments, not sales. All sub-versions of Android are included. Yes, the B&N Nook Color tablet is included in the tablet figures.”

So the B&N Nook is counted as an Android tablet and part of the 27% share of Android. But Google itself does not count the B&N Nook as an Android tablet. It’s not something that can even use the Android brand. From Google’s own documentation:

We define an “Android compatible” device as one that can run any application written by third-party developers using the Android SDK and NDK. We use this as a filter to separate devices that can participate in the Android app ecosystem, and those that cannot. Devices that are properly compatible can seek approval to use the Android trademark. Devices that are not compatible are merely derived from the Android source code and may not use the Android trademark.

In other words, compatibility is a prerequisite to participate in the Android apps ecosystem. Anyone is welcome to use the Android source code, but if the device isn’t compatible, it’s not considered part of the Android ecosystem.

So to summarize, whereas the Nook is counted as an “Android tablet” it…

  • cannot be called an Android device without violating the trademark
  • may or may not compatible with Android Apps
  • does not include Google Services like Google Maps
  • cannot license the Android Market client software or brand
  • is not considered to be a part of the Android ecosystem by Google

All this is also true for the Amazon Kindle Fire and whatever Baidu, Alibaba and other Google competitors will be selling. Furthermore, Google can define compatibility and therefore what “being Android” means arbitrarily and can change that definition at will. It can even withdraw compatibility on the basis of business priorities.

It matters because these devices might end up very popular (see Amazon’s reporting of Fire’s pre-orders in its quarterly earnings call) and in aggregate could even be the majority of “Android tablets”.

The result is that most analysis of the Android ecosystem (and by comparison, all mobile ecosystems) depends on classifying as Android devices those that compete with Google, and indeed, with Android. For the purpose of assessing value, growth and opportunity for third parties such reports fall short.

So what should be done?

The solution is simple: Count as Android devices those that are allowed to be called Android as per Google’s own definition. It makes clear that developers can reliably sell their software through the Android Market. It makes clear that those devices are designed to use Google services and it makes clear that those devices are not designed to compete with Google.

Those devices which are using “derived” Android source code and are not compatible (as per Google’s definition) and are not allowed to be called Android by their vendor should be called something else. Maybe “Android-like” or “Android derivative” or “Non-Google Android” or just “Other”.