The Android conundrum: Why tablets tank, smartphones surge

The iPad, for all its merits, may not be Android tablets' real competition

Sony once again announced its Android tablets this week, joining pretty much every major PC maker in announcing -- but not actually shipping -- Android tablets based on the Google Android "Honeycomb" 3.0 OS. The same week, yet another investor analyst reported that sales of the first Honeycomb tablet, the respectable Motorola Mobility Xoom, may have sold as few as 25,000 units. (Motorola Mobility says it shipped 250,000, but that means how many it sent to stores, not how many they sold.) Compare this number to 2.5 million sold in a shorter period for the iPad 2, which Apple could not make enough of and, thus, sold fewer than expected. One particularly vulturish investment analyst even suggested Motorola start suing other Android makers over patents to make money, rather than rely on the sales of Android tablets themselves.

Meanwhile, sales of Android smartphones continued to surge; most analyst firms predicted Android handsets will account for half of all smartphone sales in the United States by year's end, up from about 30 percent today, and become the undisputed smartphone champ. The iPhone, by contrast, would remain flat and account for around 25 to 30 percent of smartphones sold, RIM BlackBerrys would be in the 10 to 15 percent range, and everyone else would be irrelevant. Even enterprises are predicted to see an Android smartphone majority this year.

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Why are Android tablets tanking while Android smartphones explode? You can't just blame the iPad, because the iPhone isn't enjoying the same relative success against Android smartphones as the iPad is against the Xoom. Yet, generally speaking, the quality gap is no different.

There are several theories floating around, none satisfying given the huge Android fan base, the large number of Apple haters out there, and the lack of other tablets to choose instead. Face it -- hardly anyone will choose the RIM BlackBerry PlayBook given how disastrous that product turned out to be, and you don't see any evidence that people are rethinking their aversion to Windows tablets.

One theory is that the iPad 2 is so obviously superior that no one -- not even a fandroid -- can resist the Apple tablet. Superior it is, but fanboys are by definition hard-core devotees, not fair-weather friends. I just don't see a massive religious conversion occurring, especially among those who have legitimate issues with Apple's control over the platform and users (via iTunes and the App Store). Meanwhile, these same folks remain in thrall to every Android smartphone rumor, as Apple fanboys are to iPhone rumors.

Another theory is they're waiting for the flood of promised Android tablets before they put down their $500 to $900. Maybe, but there should be a lot more fandroids willing to get the first, respectable Android tablet today (the $600 Xoom) rather than wait until summer or fall for the promised devices -- especially considering the similarity in their specs.

A third theory is that Apple sneakily bought up all the key components at discount in its confidence about the iPad 2's success. As a result, Android makers and other competitors are forced to charge more than Apple for feature-equivalent products -- forcing users to wait until prices are more closely aligned.

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