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What can Google's tablet deliver?

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Google is in cahoots with Verizon developing a tablet device, reports the WSJ. But with the world and his dog also developing copycat iPads, it's hard to see what Google in particular can bring to the market.

The brutal lesson Apple has handed to the phone business is that unless you can deploy very high quality design experience, and do so in a very focused way, your heritage and brand name counts for nothing. Ask Sony or Nokia, who have consumer electronics in their DNA, but have struggled to create a successful new product line.

There was a curious turn of phrase in the Journal's interview with Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam that made me wonder if he'd met the right company.

"We're looking at all the things Google has in its archives that we could put on a tablet to make it a great experience," Lowell told the paper.

Um, shurely shome mistake? Google is not a Warner Music, or a Pearson, whose archives (say, Columbia or Motown Records or Penguin Books) reach back to the start of 20th century culture, and contain many of the highlights. Google's archive is ten years' worth of web scrapings, and the valuable bits there are not owned by Google. In fact, the closest Google comes to an "archive" is its YouTube liability, currently burning a hole in its pocket in two ways: the escrow fund for copyright holders, and the cost of running an operation that's good enough to be massively popular, but repellent to sponsors and advertisers, and not quite good enough to pay for.

Archives of stuff are not what Google is good at. It has huge scale, and can develop attractive desktop services quickly. It is reasonably adept at putting these on mobile platforms. But since these are already available universally, there's no special Googley-ness to running Gmail on a Google tablet. And certainly, none of Google's services is unique enough to sway a purchasing decision. When you think about it, the biggest success stories of the past decade are people taking ubiquitous me-too services and putting them in a proprietary box: Palm, TomTom and BlackBerry were all 'software in a box'. Each was a fairly mundane software app, turned into an appliance.

The fashionable mania for hardware companies to launch free web services really baffles me; it promises a world of pain for the operator, who is obliged to put stuff out for free, but get clobbered when things go down. Users have turned out to be far more promiscuous than anyone predicted, so there's no 'stickiness' or loyalty, other than with email. I suppose it's fashion.

Even with a reasonably strong hand of services and Android, which has a lot going for it, Google doesn't have what it takes to create a compelling consumer gadget. Android is a deservedly popular development environment, the cost is attractive (ie zero), it's reasonably capable, and the pace of improvements to Android gives everyone involved a lot of confidence. No, I mean the bigger problem facing anyone not in control of the design. When it comes to internet appliances, owning one (or even several) components is not going to give you any kind of advantage.

Let's have a quick reality check, and see what Apple's advantages are with the iPad. They're really quite frightening.

Apple has good relationships with the people who have real archives - the copyright holders. Apple respects them enough to do business: its flexibility over the publisher's agency model demonstrates that. Whistling Kumbaya and the virtues of user generated content doesn't really cut it, here. Apple also promises developers a mass market, 80 million it reckons, and with 4.0, the addition of a ready-made, built-in advertising option. That's going to force Google to hand over money it would rather keep.

But most of all, Apple controls every part of the design, and it produces just one model at a time. (There are variations in capacity and 3G or no 3G, but customers and developers know there's just going to be one iPad this year. And another next year.) So there's an enormous amount of effort devoted to making an Apple tablet a nice experience. Apple knows it's implicitly competing with other entertainment (or wasting time) options, which are themselves easy to use (a TV) familiar (a book) or mature (a games console).

It's all about design. To design a good appliance, you need to control every piece in the chain. If you can't do it, you really shouldn't be in this race. ®

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