Google stopped caring about tablets long before the Pixel Slate

Pixel Slate
Pixel Slate (Image credit: Jerry Hildenbrand / Android Central)

Google has been put on record saying it's canceling the production and sale of self-branded tablets. As it turns out, this isn't exactly a new decision, but Google being up-front about it all is; a Google spokesperson told Computer World it's done in no uncertain terms. And Rick Osterloh, the head of Google's hardware department, even tweeted an admission of the leak.

Saying Google doesn't care about tablets is an old cliché, but it's also true.

We already knew Google had plans to scale back its internal hardware division this year and in March the first word that tablets were getting canned was spreading around. If you've been paying attention, it probably didn't surprise you then and doesn't surprise you now because Google has never really cared about tablets.

The reasons it hasn't had a burning desire to build an amazing tablet are complex yet simple: it doesn't need to and it can't make any money doing it. And these reasons are tied together in a way that isn't likely to change any time soon.

Hardware versus software

Google wasn't born a hardware company. We have Pixel phones and Pixel Chrome products now, but those products were all originally built by outside companies and branded with Google's own name. Google built its business on software.

When it comes to products like Android and Chrome, that software was targeted explicitly to other companies who made hardware, like Samsung or LG. Google makes money from Android and Chrome because Samsung and LG and many other companies take those products and use them; more people using Android and Chrome means more eyeballs on Google's services which means more revenue from advertisements. The hardware division at Google seems like a vanity project at times and doesn't generate any significant income.

Google's best tablet was the Samsung Nexus 10. That's telling.

A look at Google's tablet products quickly shows that having other companies make them is a better idea anyway. Outside of the Nexus 7, none were very well received and some were absolutely vilified by reviewers and users alike. That doesn't mean that everyone hated the products — I actually like the Pixel Slate but only when the keyboard is attached — but it does mean that none ever really had a chance to become a commercial success.

Samsung can make a good Android tablet. Well, as good as an Android tablet can be because Google doesn't really care about tablet software, either. But we'll talk more about that in a few minutes. Samsung is able to take what works on a tablet then add its own software to fill in the gaps and try to build a product that competes with the iPad. In contrast, Microsoft is able to build a laptop that's usable as a tablet and try to compete with the iPad, too. Google hasn't been able to pull it off, and I get the feeling that the people who count the beans have decided that enough is enough and there will be no more millions wasted on trying.

But the reason Google hasn't been able to pull it off is the same reason it's stopping production — Google never really cared about tablets to begin with. At least not enough.

Practice, practice, practice

Remember the Motorola Xoom? It was the first "Google-made" Android tablet and it came with a lot of promises about how Android apps would soon be better. We heard the same promise with each and every tablet to come from Google, and it just never happened. The Nexus 7 is once again a bit of an outlier, but mostly because it isn't that much bigger than many phones are today; an app built for a 6-inch phone doesn't look or act terribly on a 7-inch tablet. With the launch of the Pixel Slate, we see that not much has changed and a promise of great Android apps on a tablet is still just a promise.

Tablets aren't just big phones and most Android apps prove it.

That's because Google has failed to do what it needed to do in order to make them great. It decided that quantity was more important than quality and in order to claim it had millions of tablet apps in Google Play developers were not forced to make any of them good. That's not to say none of them are, but the few jewels on the tablet side of Google Play are that's only because the developers wanted it more than Google did.

Even Android and Chrome OS are not great on a tablet. Things are certainly better than they used to be, but all it takes is using a phone or a Chromebook then transitioning directly to a tablet running Android or Chrome to see that a lot more could be done to make the experience better. It all feels a bit forced, and because the operating system and the apps can run on a bigger touch display they are plopped down with a promise that things will get better. And while there have been plenty of tries, they haven't really been made to be good enough.

I thought Honeycomb was supposed to fix this. Or Ice Cream Sandwich. Or something.

While this means stopping production of any tablets might make sense for the accountants because making them loses money, it also means that making the software work better on them all depends on an OEM willing to build one. Samsung's not going to stop making the Galaxy Tab any time soon, but if it did, what would Google do? With no in-house product to test with or build on, Android on a tablet either depends on cheap products built as impulse buys or it withers and dies.

Chromebooks have a slightly less bleak future, as for most people Chrome is nothing but a window to a web that's becoming touch-friendly. The controls and settings and ancillary parts of the system may feel clunky and unoptimized, but the majority of the content simply needs a well-built display and digitizer to work as a tablet. Not that many companies are rushing to build Chrome tablets, but if any were, they would benefit from Google trying to make Chrome better on a touch screen — which it is still doing because there are no plans to discontinue building self-branded Chromebooks.

Unfortunately, you only get thoughtful and well-designed software on a tablet the same way you get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice.

It ain't over 'til it's over

This probably isn't the last chapter in the Google tablet saga. The company can't compete with Apple and Microsoft in the tablet space right now and seems to be conceding rather than continuing to spend more money. That will probably change once someone thinks of a better way or a better reason to get the assembly lines rolling once again. In the meantime, Samsung will keep taking what Google offers and do its best to build a great Android tablet, and you can flip the screen back on your Chromebook if you crave that second-class experience of an all-touch Chrome OS. That doesn't mean we have to like it, though.

It also doesn't mean the decision makers at Google are too concerned with what we like or don't like about this one. We are the company's primary customers, but business is business and that means programs that make money will be favored. If the market shows demand for another iPad or Surface alternative, and someone at Google thinks they know a way to build one that can be better than the rest, it will happen. In the meantime, a Galaxy Tab A is less than $300 (opens in new tab) and better than any tablet Google has ever built itself.

Jerry Hildenbrand
Senior Editor — Google Ecosystem

Jerry is an amateur woodworker and struggling shade tree mechanic. There's nothing he can't take apart, but many things he can't reassemble. You'll find him writing and speaking his loud opinion on Android Central and occasionally on Twitter.

  • be honest...why would they still care? I'm not sure tablets are an area of growth. No matter how hard Applesuck is trying to say otherwise. The whole selling point of tablets was that they could perform tasks and functions which were beyond the capabilities of a handset. They also had more memory, speed, higher specs. But that has stopped being true for the past few years. I look at my current handset and it soo far ahead of what the BlackBerry PlayBook was, my one and only experience with a tablet. Don't get me wrong, at the time the PlayBook was an excellent device, in some ways ahead of it's time, in terms of the UI, software and some of the features it possessed. But in true BlackBerry fashion they managed to launch their product half-baked and lacking some critical components, like apps, native email and calendar etc. Ever since then I've tried to convince myself to buy another tablet... but I really could not see the point. Some people say that it's better for playing games or watching movies or reading books. For books an e-reader is way better at only a fraction of the cost. I don't play for movie or series watching, many of the handsets can miracast a lot of content directly on smart TV sets, so that is that. Currently the only device that is worth owning is the Microsoft Surface, it is the best and closest combination between a tablet and a laptop...
  • Agreed, the Surface is the tablet that makes most sense for me too.
  • I'm with you on that one to. Ipads and Android are good for all mobile things that your phone can do but the surface is a compact pc that adds what your mobile can not /dose not do as well as mobile.
  • Meh, the ISuck and Analdroid tablets are not enough of an incentive for me to spend money on. Because that's just it. My Analdroid One device can pretty much do all the things that the tablets can do. As I've said, I don't think that tablets are an area of sales growth. But that doesn't mean they're becoming obsolete. It's just that perhaps they'll slowly become more of an enterprise device aka for governments and corporations. Hospitals, offices etc. Those are places where tablets could see more use than the consumer market. Me, I don't feel like lugging around a tablet...even a small one, nevermind having to worry about it getting stolen. I have plenty to worry about with my phone. And, if I was a student, I'd rather have a Surface to compliment my needs...
  • I think you're contradicting yourself big time with the statement that you don't think tablets are "an area of sales growth" and immediately following that up with "for governments and corporations"... the thing is, if governments and corporations really needed such devices, it would be cause for instant banking for manufacturers, instant growth as they can charge such entities infinite money by offering support for said products. Do you think companies like Dell for example make most of their money on the sale of computers to the general public? Maybe, I don't think we have good insight into their profits at that level, but they absolutely bank on their contracts to the U.S. government and companies working for the govt, and I know this first hand. The Surface is a good machine, and if people want one device to do it all it's the best choice. There are a few great use modes for tablets that simply cannot be replicated by phones (even phablets) or foldable PCs. They're great as media consumption devices. They're also great specialized tools for artists. Google's efforts in this area are bad, they're not very good at figuring out what a tablet is supposed to be. As much as I hate Apple and iOS they actually did figure out what the iPad is supposed to be. I own one, I hate the OS, but for what I need the iPad to do it works splendidly well, and not even a Surface comes close. Until I can get an Android device that can do what the iPad can currently do, I'll stick with it. Apple makes good profits on their iPads, it was a huge area of growth for them, and while growth has tapered off, it's a large chunk of their portfolio.
  • How am I contradicting myself? I said I thought that tablet sales in the consumer sector are not looking like they'll be an area of growth. Sales from all brands/ manufacturers are either decreasing or have plateaued. I think that the private or public sectors aka enterprise customers might pick up some of the slack. But all governments and corporations put together and ordering in bulk could not makeup for the customer market sales declines...
  • I would go with a Huawei M5 8" tablet. I have a M3 8" and I love it. I will never buy any device running Chrome OS.
  • Just gimme my phone or laptop, that's it, no need for "tweeners". Applesuck...that's funny.
  • True that -- Galaxy S8 phone and windows laptop here. I have an amazon fire tablet with Google play installed yet I hardly use it. I had an iPad mini 1st Gen and liked it. If I wanted a real tablet I would probably buy another iPad.
  • There's nothing on the iPad I can't do on either my surface go or surface book 2 plus more. Apple just doesn't get it anymore, and good because frankly I don't care, thier attitude towards consumers is horrible. Funnest thing to do is running real dosbox on a surface go, paired up with an Xbox controller and the keyboard accessory. Last trip I took I had people surrounding me at the airport (parents and their kids mostly) asking what machine I was on. They didn't know it was powerful enough to run any of that.
  • I loved my nexus 7 perfect size, it was a sad day when it gave up the ghost
  • I think Google never truly cared about tablets in the first place and that the Nexus 7 was a success that surprised even Google but with that said, Google knew they were facing an uphill struggle against the iPad so they didn't put as much effort into their tablets including the Pixel Slate which is a shamew because if anyone could have challenged Apple in tablets then it would have been Google.
  • Not when phones keep getting bigger.
  • I really liked the Pixel C. It was well built, had a brilliant screen and was lightning fast. Just a shame the battery life was middling at best.
  • My 15 inch surface book 2 took care of both my tablet needs and my laptop needs. If I really need to scale down for travel I have a surface go which makes out to be the best tablet (for me) I've ever owned. Read my comics on both, run my emulators on both, web site browsing on both, book reading mostly on the Go, and when I need to run something way intense my book 2 exceeds even in the small amount of gaming I do. I do have an 8 inch Samsung Android tablet I keep around for cooking and etc. But I don't ever expect it to get any kind of updates for how old it is.
  • I use a tablet as entertainment for my 5 year old. We have a 9 inch Samsung Tab and it's perfect that use. I'd never move to an iPad because they don't support SD storage devices. I have a 256 gig card on a 32 gig tablet so I can load videos, movies, and games galore on a sub $200 device. To do the same with Apple products would cost over $500. A phone is too small or expensive for this purpose so I really hope Android tablets last for a while. But I guess the market speaks regardless of what individuals want.
  • This saddens me so much... 💔 I loved my Nexus 7 until it died and was waiting for a new Google supported tablet. I waited a little over a year before buying a new table waiting for an announcement. I ended up buying a Samsung Galaxy Tab A which I use very regularly however it is not the best tablet. I wish this was announced 3 months ago. I would had not spent the money on a Samsung tablet. I told myself that I would never own an iCrap product but I'm sorry Google... You have failed this Android user... I'll be moving to an iPad once I'm tired of the slow performance and lack of timely Samsung provided OS updates. RIP Google Tablets... 😢💔😢
  • Have a Huawei M5 8.4 running pie and it is fantastic hardware for the money... The Slate was just ridiculous money...
  • I have no need for Chrome OS, or a PC surface either. I upgraded to a Samsung Galaxy S5e.... The two games I play are awesome on the 10.5 tablet. Google Sheets is terrific on the tablet, as well as a journal I keep using the Journey app. Yes, I pair my tablet with a terrific blue tooth keyboard. I think what most commentators miss is android tablets are absolutely huge in elementary schools..... Lol, perhaps not many parents read this site.
  • I loved the idea of a chrome tablet and after buying the Pixel Book I found I was after the wrong thing. Pixel Book is perfect
  • I wish I could say Google was being short-sighted with their de-emphasis on tablets, but the market doesn't lie. Tablets are on the decline, even more so than smartphones. Me, I love the form factor, provided it's in the Goldilock's range: not too big, not too small. That's about an 8" tablet for me. LOVED my Nexus 7, but it was slowing down something awful and the 7 inch screen was feeling too cramped to read many web pages and all comics on, even with the great Comixology app. A 10 inch tablet is WAY too big and heavy for just grabbing and reading. May as well use a laptop, but then they have that big ol' keyboard in the way. Even if you can fold it back, that still adds to the weight and complexity of something that should be simple. My phone's great for on-the-go and quick stuff, like apps, short page reads and videos, but not for a long, comfortable reading experience, or anything complex like paying bills. And I'm old enough to truly groove on a big-screen desktop, with a REAL keyboard and a mouse, which remains the superior implement with which to use a GUI. But who wants to fire up the big beast and sit at a desk just to read a book? You can't beat a 30" screen for shopping, but my 8" Galaxy Tab A, though slower than my GS8, is the choice for mid-range web browsing and curling up with a good book!
  • cannot pay your bills through your smartphone? Never had that experience. Paying bills that way has been a godsend for me, based on the amount of time it saves me, nevermind the ability to avoid the bank tellers (sorry bank tellers) who end up trying to sell me products I never asked for or would ever want. Personally I'd find it more awkward to pay bills on a tablet...
  • And if I want to curl up with a good book I'll do it with an actual book...not a tablet...
  • Yep, reading, browsing and YouTube. The 8" tablet is the best size. Phone screens are too small for those things.
    I agree with everything you said.
  • I have a 3 year old tablet that I got for Free from my wireless provider. It does what I need it to do.
    I wish it had more built in memory and I wish it didn't stop getting updates last year. :( But I have a free line with it, so I shouldn't complain.
  • A phone and laptop are far more useful to me based on my previous experience with an iPad, which I rarely used. When my phone can't cut it, I usually need a bigger screen than a tablet or I need to type quickly on an actual keyboard.
  • I think many people say tablets are useless devices because they are addicted to notifications and texting on their phones so every touch screen device that doesn't have a sim card to a cell tower is useless for feeding their addictions.