For many consumers, they’re as valuable as the Retina Display, and can single-handedly justify a $500 iPad over an Android tablet. For now at least, they’re the only thing standing between consumers and mass adoption of the Android tablet platform.
And ultimately, they will make or break the success of Microsoft's Windows 8 tablets, including the first-party Surface device, which appear to be coming in October 2012.
Sometimes, it's so easy to get distracted by all the hardware and device manufacturer news— Nexus 7, new Kindle smartphones or tablets, 7-inch iPads, Kickstarter-funded next-gen iPad stands—that it’s easy to forget about the most important element of the tablet ecosystem: apps and software.
This week, several announcements and stories underscored how, even five years in for the iPhone and two-and-a-half years in for the iPad, app development remains a wild, speculative, emerging market and one of the more lucrative opportunities for small and large developers.
Media and publishing companies going all in
Media companies in particular are getting wise to the opportunities to extend their brand and set up a path to making real incremental dollars. Early in the week, we saw news that Next Issue, an unlikely partnership of Conde Nast, Hearst, Meredith, News Corp, and Time Inc, has essentially created its own iPad newsstand, offering up readers the latest issues of each publisher’s monthly publications. (The Next Issue app is also available on Android tablets.)
And how about NBC, teaming up with Adobe’s Project Primetime to offer live streaming video and coverage of all 302 events of this year’s Summer Olympics? More than most announcements of the last half-year, this is living up to the tablet dream. (The only downside is that you have to have an existing cable or satellite subscription to watch, which is proof that the Comcasts and DirecTVs of the world remain a major hurdle in anytime, anywhere live streaming.)
Then there are the news aggregators of the world. News360, intent on keeping pace with Flipboard announced a major update earlier this week that will use artificial intelligence to learn from your story selections in order to provide the most ideal personalized blend of news.
The truth about the tablet ecosystem is that, every week, thousands of apps are released, updated, and gratefully installed and used by millions of users. At least some small percentage of those apps become so integrated into our lives that we may not give them up for years.
Let the golden age begin
I can’t help but think that in 5-6 years, when the market is a bit more mature with established brands, and more mature business models, we’re going to look back on this period of time as a golden age for software.
It’s clear that we’re watching ubiquitous brands being created every quarter across all categories. Perhaps an even more noteworthy and memorable attribute for this golden age (as compared to what should probably be called the Bronze Age of PC software development in the 80s and 90s) is that we’ve had the privilege of watching life-changing apps evolve in real-time.
Even better: We’re influencing the design and development of these pieces of software in incredibly direct fashion. As an example, I’ve used Evernote on a daily basis for work and life for years, and I’ve watched it adapt to my needs as the Evernote developers gain more and more feedback and learn more about how we all use the app across our various platforms.
The same could be said of pretty much any category of apps. Even enterprise apps, which appear to be evolving more for performance than aesthetics.
This week’s winner: Google Android
With Google’s first-party tablet hitting store shelves, the company has to be pleased with the initial wave of reviews, which are almost entirely positive. Like many other reviews, The Verge’s Joshua Topolsky framed his Nexus 7 review as a referendum on the platform and the new Android 4.1 Jellybean OS.
Also like most other reviewers, Topolsky found the Nexus to be not just an excellent $200 tablet, but an excellent tablet overall. “The last time I was surprised by a product with those same qualities,” he opined, “It was called the iPad.”
And if this wave of reviews wasn’t enough, how about the makers of the newly announced Ouya open-source gaming console—which uses Android as its OS—raising an astonishing $4.6 million via Kickstarter in under a week.
Maybe Android is finally starting to catch fire.
(BTW, reports that Apple may have sold 20 million iPads last quarter almost catapulted the company to both the winner’s and loser’s circles this month–keep reading to find out–but the Ouya announcement pushes Android over the top this week.)
This week's loser: Apple
Early in the week, the San Francisco Chronicle broke news that the city of San Francisco was going to stop purchasing Apple products. The cause? Apple's decision to pull its products off the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT) registry. EPEAT is a government-sanctioned environmental seal of approval that certifies that products are recyclable and energy efficient.
The city, like many other government agencies, has a strict rule that demands a certain percentage of all purchased products be EPEAT certified.
As TabTimes Tech Editor Ray Aguilera astutely pointed out later in the week, part of the reason Apple decided to leave EPEAT is that the company doesn't want the constraints EPEAT creates in terms of form-factor, design, and style.
Aguilera also made the point that Apple goes out of its way to be as environmentally friendly as possible, EPEAT notwithstanding. By the end of the week, it was all a moot point as Apple admitted that it made a mistake and announced it would rejoin the ratings program.
It's worth noting that, while tablet devices are not included in EPEAT standards, it's likely the certification will include them in the near future.
On the horizon
Earlier in the week, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer vowed that Microsoft will take the battle to Apple on the tablet, OS, consumer, cloud, hardware, and software fronts. I’m sure we’re going to be hearing a lot more from Microsoft across all these categories—particularly tablets and Windows 8, which will be releasing to manufacturing in August—over the next few weeks.
The other big news on the international front is that Apple will be releasing the iPad in China for the first time on Friday, July 20. How big a deal will it be in China, particularly in light of the recent news that the economy isn’t growing as fast as expected? We’ll find out.
More interesting to me: How will theiPad’s release affect app consumption and development in China?