Are Google and Microsoft Actually Helping the iPad?
In the latest episode of the iPad’s short history, it seems that the companies who are the most interested in competing with Apple’s iPad may be making it more popular. As Vlad Sovov reports for The Verge that iPad sales have recently seen a boost from two of Apple’s biggest rivals, Google and Microsoft, thanks to the release of the somewhat-disappointing Nexus 9 and a move by Microsoft to make its suite of Office apps free for iOS.
Google’s Nexus 9, its latest flagship Android tablet, has the same 4:3 screen ratio as the iPad, and aims for the same premium feel of the iPad, illustrating that Google intends the tablet to demonstrate what’s next for Android, to OEMs and consumers alike. The Nexus 9 also runs on Android 5.0 Lollipop, Google’s best tablet software so far, which brings an array of new features that hold appeal even for the most casual user.
Redesigned animations, a simple app-switching interface, a redesigned calendar, and more-interactive notifications are among Lollipop’s new features. Security features like default encryption and a Smart Lock facial recognition system are also new.
While Ars Technica’s Ron Amadeo called the Nexus 9 “one of the nicest Android tablets we’ve ever used,” Dieter Bohn notes on The Verge that the Nexus 9 — just like the Nexus 7 before it — isn’t expected to put a sizable dent in iPad sales. As Bohn puts it, the Nexus 9 is “more figurehead than flagship,” intended to show users and developers what’s possible.
But for many, the reality of the Nexus 9 falls a little short. For Molly Wood at The New York Times, the Nexus 9 is “a little too expensive to be a good value,” since the newest flagship is considerably more expensive than its predecessors, though it does add a fast processor and a high-res screen. And while the 8.9-inch tablet costs $400 with 16GB of memory, which Wood points out is $100 less than an iPad with the same amount of storage, the Nexus 9 lacks the ecosystem of apps that makes for a superior user experience with the iPad.
As Apple makes incremental improvements to iOS for the iPad, it also relies on the activity of third-party developers, who continue to create more and better apps and tools for the iPad — effectively perpetuating iOS’s status as the premier platform for mobile developers. Google is trying to catch up, but some of the standout apps that have emerged on the iPad have raised users’ expectations for tablets across the board. Beautifully designed and incredibly functional apps enable users to equip an iPad with the specific tools and apps that they need, and to have them deliver a satisfying experience that Android, by and large, doesn’t yet match.
Google itself even adds to the choices that users have on the iPad. Its own array of Google apps for iOS — gathered conveniently on its Google Mobile site — includes everything from Google Hangouts to Google Maps to Gmail and Google Drive, all free tools that form a part of the iPad’s compelling ecosystem of useful (and fun) apps.
Microsoft, in turn, recently made its Office suite free for iPad, iPhone, and Android, not long after it announced a partnership with Dropbox to integrate the cloud storage service into Office across desktop, mobile, and web versions. As Tom Warren pointed out in The Verge at the time, users can now download Office for iPad and store all of their documents in Dropbox, without paying Microsoft anything.
Michael Atalla, Microsoft’s head of Office marketing, said that the move was an extension of the existing strategy to offer free access to Office apps online. “We’re taking that same user experience we provide online to the native apps of iOS and Android. We want to make sure that our customers can be productive across all the devices they have.” The apps are available to consumers for free, but will require an Office 365 subscription to edit documents stored on OneDrive for Business or Dropbox for business.
The move seems aimed at keeping users from turning to Office alternatives on their smartphones or tablets. Rivals can build free apps for the iPad, iPhone, or Android, offering optional premium features on top, and shake users’ reliance on Microsoft’s Office suite. As Warren notes, some developers have created standout apps, and have seen success with the model already.
These include CloudOn, a gesture-based app for editing Office documents, Apple’s iWork apps offered free on the iPad, and FiftyThree’s popular Paper app for iPad. The threat that users could realize they don’t need Office to create and edit documents likely forced Microsoft’s hand with its mobile shift, which the company, under the leadership of chief executive Satya Nadella, sees as necessary to ensure Office’s ubiquity across platforms.
While both Google and Microsoft have made efforts to find success with their own tablets, Microsoft’s Surface RT tablet suffered the same “app inadequacy” that Google’s Android tablets have all experienced. The current Surface Pro 3, Warren reports, is more concerned with challenging the MacBook than the iPad. Even other competitors, like Amazon, opt to avoid direct competition with the iPad by making the Kindle Fire tablets cheap devices that draw revenue through the sale of content. Like Microsoft and Google, Amazon also chooses to make its services available on iOS, illustrating the importance and dominance of Apple’s platform.
Because of the iPad’s popularity, many prospective tablet buyers will compare the devices offered by Google, Samsung, Sony, and others to Apple’s tablet. Even at lower price points, these tablets struggle to compete with the iPad, and as Savov reports at The Verge, the industry has seen little evidence outside of the iPad that making tablets is a profitable business.
The iPad is not only a device, but also a platform, one that Apple didn’t define but instead unleashed to let users and developers adapt it to their own niche uses. In just a few years, the iPad has achieved incredible name recognition and found a place in millions of homes, all because of Apple’ confidence that users would find a way to adapt the iPad for their uses, and that developers would create the apps that would make the iPad’s potential a reality.
So far, neither Google nor Microsoft has been able to make the same happen for their tablets by convincing either users or developers to adopt their platforms and tablets en masse. So they are both along for the ride with Apple, and ironically are making the iPad stronger and more popular by helping to fulfill Apple’s prediction that it could convince both developers and regular consumers of the utility and possibilities of the iPad.