Reasons the Motorola Xoom may fall flat

Motorola's upcoming Android 3.0 tablet has all the makings of an iPad-besting super tablet. But when the financial interests of carriers and exclusivity deals come into play, consumer interest may dry up.

Motorola Xoom
The Motorola Xoom on display at CES 2011. Josh P. Miller/CNET

I have a lot of hope for Motorola's Xoom tablet. With its Android 3.0 operating system, 10-inch screen, and 4G network compatibility, it's the most eagerly awaited tablet of the year (for me, at least). Unfortunately, greed will probably screw it all up.

Pessimism isn't an approach I typically take. If anything, I love underdogs to a fault. I'm the guy who owns both a Zuneand a Chumby. No joke.

For the record, I think Motorola is going to make a great product. Using a deadly combo of marketing firepower and killer hardware, Motorola fashioned the Droid smartphone into an iPhone-terrorizing antihero. With all the advantages Motorola has (including Google's coveted Android 3.0 blessing), there is little to no chance the Xoom will suck.

Unfortunately, it's exactly this kind of can't-fail thinking that will probably have Motorola and its partners shooting themselves in the foot. Here are all the ways greed may hold the Xoom back from greatness. Let's hope I'm wrong.

Contracts
Quick poll: Raise your hand if you think buying a tablet with a two-year carrier contract makes sense. Seriously? Who are you people?

Unless you work for a cellular company or your ludicrous wealth has somehow escaped the economic slump, I have a hard time understanding why people would buy a contract-strapped tablet and data plan on top of their existing phone plan.

We saw this play out already with the Samsung Galaxy Tab. Sure, Samsung claims the Galaxy Tab was met with strong sales (globally, at least), but many comments I've seen from readers are quick to point out the chilling effect of the two-year commitments that came with it (or the premium price for off-contract models).

AT&T's contract-free, month-to-month arrangement with Apple is, arguably, the most successful tablet carrier arrangement yet. So why is it that so few carriers have conceded to mimic this successful approach?

We have yet to see how Verizon will handle contracts and pricing around the Xoom. That said, Verizon's Samsung Galaxy Tab was the most expensive among all the carriers, and the Xoom's high profile and 4G compatibility should provide them with ample excuses for contracts and premium data pricing. Let's hope not.

No Wi-Fi model
Will Motorola sell a low-priced, Wi-Fi-only version of the Xoom? There's reason to be optimistic, but so far, only a 3G version has been announced.

Current rumors are pointing to a $699 to $799 version of the Xoom, fitted with 32GB of storage. It's a price that's comparable with the 3G-equipped iPad--only with better specs, and the promise of 4G.

How important is it for iPad adversaries to offer entry-level, Wi-Fi-only versions of their tablets priced at $499 or less? Again, using the Samsung Galaxy Tab as an example, I've read dozens of reader comments criticizing Samsung for not releasing a competitive, Wi-Fi-only version of the Tab. We know it's coming , but Samsung's purposely delayed release seems oddly anticonsumer.

Not everyone needs their tablet to be a 4G-connected (or even 3G) ultramobile device. Call me crazy, but isn't the broader consumer appeal of tablets to have a simple, efficient device for surfing the Web and checking e-mail from your couch? Sure, there are the jet-setters and captains of industry who demand a speedy, always-on connection to the Internet that travels with them, but what about the rest of us?

Do these companies really think that by not offering a Wi-Fi-only model, consumers will simply shrug and sign up for pricey data plans they don't really want? Whatever the logic is, it seems like a silly game to be playing while Apple walks away with the entire market.

Bloatware
Sigh. Verizon just loves cramming its software onto the products it sells. Whether it's the VCast Music Store, VCast App store, Verizon Navigation, or their partnership with Blockbuster's video-streaming app, the carrier just can't leave well enough alone. In some cases, Verizon's apps can't even be deleted from the device (though they can be hidden out of the way).

Sure, there are worse things than having a company deliberately muck up your product with bloatware, but there really should be a product price threshold where Verizon agrees to keep their greedy mitts off the thing.

Presumably, Google's expert team of software engineers and user interface designers spent months sweating the details and software services that will define the Android 3.0 experience. For Verizon to step in at the last minute and slap a VCast app onto the home screen would just be tacky.

Furthermore, these kinds of carrier maneuverings are just the sort of thing Google should be guarding itself against. Competing with iOS means competing with iTunes, and you don't want the end user thinking the best you can offer is VCast, Blockbuster, and preinstalled game demos.

Honeycomb exclusivity
Through an exclusive deal, Motorola will be the first manufacturer to offer a tablet running Google's tablet-optimized Android Honeycomb OS. Eventually, this exclusivity will run its course and Android 3.0 will trickle out to hundreds of eager tablet manufacturers waiting in the wings.

Until then, however, Motorola and Verizon have the enviable position of being the only game in town when it comes to Honeycomb. Paradoxically, it's a distinction that may hurt them as much as it helps.

Everyone is eager to see what Android Honeycomb can do, and how it performs on Motorola's high-end hardware. That said, until the tablet-specific OS becomes broadly available to manufacturers and developers, savvy consumers are left waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Manufacturers such as Toshiba and LG already have Honeycomb tablets ready and waiting once Motorola's exclusivity breaks. Would it be foolish to snap up Motorola's tablet (and the contracts and data plans that may come with it) before the competition even has a chance? Ask someone who bought the T-Mobile G1.

The Motorola Xoom may turn out to be the best Honeycomb tablet we see all year, but until device manufacturers are given a chance to compete, consumers are right to take a wait-and-see position.

 

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