Google will have to defend Android at I/O conference

Analysts expect to see a Google tablet and possibly some integration of Google's Android and Chrome OSes

As Google ramps up for its big I/O conference in San Francisco this week, analysts say the company must continue to prove the value of its Android operating system to developers.

Google needs to make Android more appealing to developers and stickier for consumers, analysts said. As part of that challenge, it will have to demonstrate that the OS can be successful on tablets, which it has not been to date.

Industry watchers expect Google to announce a tablet with its own brand this week. A Google tablet has long been rumored, but the timing remained uncertain.

"Let's put it this way, I'm 100 percent sure they will launch a tablet before midyear, and as far as I know, I/O is their big splash," said Tom Mainelli, an analyst at IDC.

According to Mainelli, the tablet will be made by Asustek Computer. It will have a 7-inch screen and sell for US$199, he said.

He added one caveat on the timing: Microsoft waited until a few weeks after its recent TechEd conference to unveil its Surface tablet, he noted.

But Microsoft's announcement puts that much more pressure on Google to release a tablet showcasing its Android software, according to Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group.

"In a lot of ways it has the same strategic purpose as Microsoft's tablet: It wants to ensure that Google is a player in the tablet operating-system marketplace," said Ezra Gottheil, a senior analyst with Technology Business Research.

Android has done very well on phones but has gained less traction on tablets, where the iPad is dominant. Being a stronger competitor in the tablet market should help Google retain developers for Android, Gottheil said.

(A Gizmodo report Monday claims to have more details on the tablet.)

Currently, developers make more than twice as many apps for Apple's iOS as they do for Android, according to mobile analytics firm Flurry. With Apple, developers can target their apps at two different and highly successful devices, Flurry notes. With Android, developers must tailor their apps for a range of devices, mostly phones. Apps running in iOS also generate significantly more revenue per user than Android apps.

Carolina Milanesi, a research vice president at Gartner, sees Google's main challenge at the conference as making Android more appealing economically to developers.

Good apps will also help Google establish loyalty to Android among consumers, Gottheil said. Because Android phones are generally cheaper than other smartphones, many are used as glorified feature phones with a Web browser, he said, leaving users little reason to stick with the platform.

"Some of those phones are really, really nice, but there's nothing that would make a user say, 'I want to hold on to this particular platform rather than that other shiny object,'" he said.

Analysts also want to see Google integrate Android with its desktop OS, Chrome -- or, said Enderle, to get rid of Chrome altogether.

"There were a lot of questions [from developers] at last year's I/O about the merging of Chrome OS and Android, and those questions went unanswered," said Brian Blau, a Gartner analyst.

Milanesi saw advantages in both operating systems and thought Google should not force consumers to choose. Instead, they should have the "aha" moment of recognition across devices that they increasingly get from Apple's Mac OS and iOS.

Analysts said they will also be on the lookout this week for possible new features on Google+, upgrades to Google Maps and improvements to Android security.

This year's Google I/O, which sold out in just 20 minutes, will be the first to fill three days of programming. In response to the demand, Google plans to double the number of sessions it will livestream from San Francisco and put on 350 I/O Extended events, or conference viewing parties that sometimes host a keynote of their own.

Cameron Scott covers search, web services and privacy for The IDG News Service. Follow Cameron on Twitter at CScott_IDG.

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