You can love Apple or you can hate Apple, but one thing’s for sure: Its favorite game is Lead the Industry. And the industry’s favorite game is Follow the Leader.
Steve Jobs hated the mimicry. Google’s Android software “ripped off the iPhone, wholesale ripped us off,” he told his biographer, Walter Isaacson. “I’m going to destroy Android, because it’s a stolen product.”
But there’s a positive aspect to the imitation, too. You could argue that Apple’s copycats fill in markets where Apple dares not tread, or offer an alternative to Apple’s very pure, controlled, choice-constrained world.
In that worldview, Google’s 2012 new-product announcements must seem like a cornucopia of good news. First, Google opened a unified online store with separate tabs for apps, e-books, TV shows, movies and music, modeled on the iTunes store.
Last week, it introduced the Nexus Q, a black sphere that connects to your TV and plays those songs and videos, pretty much the way the black square Apple TV does. (You can read my review of the Q online at nytimes.com/personaltech.)
Above all, Google has just introduced the Nexus 7, a shiny black tablet that aims to challenge both the iPad and Amazon’s Kindle Fire. (Nexus phone, Nexus tablet, Nexus sphere thing; what is Google thinking, anyway? If it truly wants to emulate Apple, it should minimize confusion, not foster it.)
The Kindle Fire’s most important feature is its price: $200. That’s an eye-popper in a world where the dominant tablet, the iPad, costs $500 and up. Of course, the Fire isn’t the same thing as the iPad. Its 7-inch screen is much smaller. It’s thicker and blockier. It doesn’t have a camera, microphone, GPS function, Bluetooth or memory-card slot. Its primary function is playing material you buy from Amazon, like books and video.
But that’s why Google’s tablet, manufactured by Asus, is a ground-shaking arrival. It, too, has a 7-inch screen and costs only $200, but this time, you don’t get any sense that its creators skimped to keep the price down. It’s sleek and beautiful, with rounded edges, unlike the sawed-off rectangular back of the Fire, and a “pleather” back panel that feels great. And it weighs 2.6 ounces less than the Fire, which makes a world of difference. It’s slightly thinner, too, although thicker than the iPad.
More important, the Nexus is a full-blown tablet. It’s almost as capable of letting you create stuff as consuming it. It’s fast, smooth and capable of running any Android tablet app.
So yes, the Google tablet pretty much blows the Kindle Fire’s value proposition into a cloud of ash. But it also undercuts its own Android-tablet competitors. For example, Samsung’s similar 7-inch Android tablet, the Galaxy Tab 2, costs $250 for the same 8 gigabytes of memory.
How is Google able to offer a deluxe tablet for the same price as Amazon’s bare-bones one? I asked the Nexus tablet team if it was playing a game of razors-and-blades here, losing money on every tablet with the intention of making money by selling books, movies, music and TV shows. Google concedes it makes no profit when it sells this tablet from its website — and therefore it must lose money on each one it sells in a store.
In any case, the Nexus 7 is well-equipped — for a $200 tablet. It has Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, a nine-hour battery, a bright and very sharp screen, a loud mono speaker and GPS function. A 7-inch Android tablet makes a sensational GPS navigator.
The hardware is missing only a few tidbits. There’s a camera on the front for video calls, but no camera on the back. The battery isn’t removable. There’s no cellular option; you can connect to the Internet only over Wi-Fi. And since there’s no memory-card slot, the built-in 8 gigabytes of storage is all you’ll ever have. (You can get a 16-gigabyte model for $50 more.)
What the Nexus 7 has that no other tablet has at the moment, however, is the latest version of Android 4.1, named Jelly Bean. Part of life in Androidland is never knowing whether or not an Android software update will be available for your brand and model.
Jelly Bean offers dozens of new features. For example, swiping your finger up the screen produces the Google Now screen: little “cards” bearing information it thinks you could use right now, based on your location, location history, calendar and Google searches. If you’ve recently searched for a sports team or a flight, for example, you see the latest scores or flight status. Weather, traffic and appointments are also part of this intriguing but only partly baked feature.
You can now save a city’s worth of Google Maps onto your tablet, so that you won’t need an Internet connection to navigate. That’s handy when you travel overseas.
Android’s talk-to-type feature can now work even without an Internet connection, too. (The iPad/iPhone can’t do that.) It works better if you’re online, but at least you get basic accuracy without a connection.
By far the most important change, however, is smoothness. Google engineers knocked themselves out trying to make Android 4.1 as responsive to your touch as, ahem, the other leading tablet. Animations all run at a supersmooth speed of 60 frames a second. Google says it tries to anticipate where your next finger touch will be, and begins to redraw the screen at that point.
Wow, does it work. Google’s tablet is now Applesque in its fluid touch response. All other makers of touch-screen gadgets should take note.
Sadly, Android giveth and Android taketh away. Using Jelly Bean, your tablet can no longer play Flash videos online, once an important advantage of Android over the iPad. Also, bizarrely, Jelly Bean removes the ability to turn your Home screen 90 degrees into landscape mode on 7-inch tablets.. It’s upright or nothing.
On the Nexus 7, Google’s special apps for reading e-books, playing music and playing videos are front and center. Clearly, Google is pulling out all the stops to duplicate a chief advantage of Apple and Amazon tablets — their well-integrated, well-stocked online store for books, movies, music and apps.
Unfortunately, Google’s efforts to build that online store are only in the early stages. Its store shelves are much emptier than Apple’s and Amazon’s.
For example, Amazon offers 650 digital magazines and newspapers; Google’s catalog is a third as big. No New Yorker, Time or The Economist.
Google’s music store has nothing from Warner, and therefore no Green Day, Linkin Park, Regina Spektor, Led Zeppelin and so on. You can download Apple and Amazon songs as many times as you want; Google lets you download a song you’ve bought only twice.
In its movie store, Google has nothing from Fox (“Ice Age,” ‘’X-Men,” ‘’Avatar,” and so on) or Summit (the “Twilight” movies). Its TV store lacks anything from CBS, Fox, WB, HBO, BBC, MTV/Nickelodeon, Showtime, Discovery Networks, A&E/History. So: no “Mad Men,” ‘’Modern Family,” ‘’Gossip Girl,” ‘’Family Guy” and so on.
Most damaging of all, there are precious few tablet-specific apps in Google’s store. There are hundreds of thousands for the iPad.
But the Nexus tablet is sweet. Its hardware and software smoothness rival Apple’s, and its luxury humiliates the Kindle Fire. In short, it’s possible that this tablet may finally help solve Google’s chicken-and-egg problem. Maybe once it becomes popular, people will finally start writing decent apps for it, and more movie and music companies will come to the Google Play store.
Until then, the iPad still makes a far more compelling total package (hardware, software, store). But at 10.1 inches, you’ll never fit that puppy into your breast pocket. If something smaller and lighter and far less expensive appeals to you, you’ll be thrilled by the Nexus 7, even if you have to wait a while before you can find everything you want to read, watch and play on it.
The New York Times Service