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Nexus 10, Nexus 7 are here -- now all they need are apps

The lack of apps for Android tablets has long been a reason why the iPad still reigns supreme. But Google hopes that will change with its new Nexus tablets.

The Nexus 10 features a nicer display than the iPad.

With an expanded line-up of Nexus tablets, Google isn't just making a case for Android tablets to consumers, it's courting developers, too.

In the Nexus 10, Google and Samsung managed to put together a tablet that outdoes the new iPad both in screen resolution and price. Google and Asus shoved in another 8 gigabytes in the Nexus 7, and added a 32 GB version in addition to cutting their prices, both of which are at a considerable discount to the upcoming iPad Mini. The message is clear: Google is willing to go all out in establishing a beachhead in the tablet business.

Unfortunately, it's software, and not hardware, that continues to be the key problem for Google. Android tablets have struggled to make a real impression with consumers because there is a dearth of apps built specifically for tablets on Android. While the hardware and specs are great for the gadget enthusiasts and hardcore Android crowd, most consumers would just opt for the device that can do the most.

Will the Nexus 10 and Nexus 7 breathe some life into tablet apps? Google certainly hopes so. The company believes the Nexus 7 had already sparked developer interest, and the higher resolution Nexus 10 will continue to build upon that momentum. It has already put together a section highlighting the best apps for Android tablets.

"The Nexus 7 is driving excitement for both tablet users and developers," said Chris Yerga, director of engineering for Google Play. "Since the Nexus 7 has come out, what we're seeing is that developers are seeing great success with tablet-optimized apps."

Google Play is benefiting from a "virtuous circle" with more developers seeing the success of Android tablet apps and jumping in themselves, according to Yerga.

Still, Apple appears to have a runaway lead. Today, Google told CNET that its Google Play store now boasts more than 700,000 apps, catching up to Apple's App Store. But Google Play doesn't break out specific tablet apps, while Apple boasts 275,000.

Since Google doesn't break out its tablet-friendly apps in a different section, it doesn't have a really good response. Yerga said Google "doesn't want to get into a numbers game," but had has success in getting developers to use its tools.

Not so fast
Industry observers are a bit more critical. Android tablets face the same "chicken-and-egg" dilemma that burgeoning mobile operating systems such as Windows Phone 8 or BlackBerry 10 are dealing with: if few consumers are buying Android tablets, why should developers build tablet-specific apps?

Android's operating system allows apps that can be sized to different devices, with an approach that is more efficient for developers.

But part of the iPad's charm is that many apps are specifically built for the device, smartly taking advantage of the larger display and adding unique features that differentiate them from iPhone versions. That's missing from a lot of Android apps.

Google's Nexus 4, Nexus 7 and Nexus 10. Google

"Developers see an overwhelming iPad presence and they go where the volume is," said Maribel Lopez, an analyst at Lopez research. She added she doesn't expect real movement in the Android tablet area until its market share reaches 30 percent.

Yerga wouldn't comment on the number of apps that work better on tablets, but said Android contains tools that allow developers to create one app that looks different depending on the device, including a version that includes multiple panels or more details when running on a device with more screen real estate. He added that doesn't simply mean an app stretched across a bigger screen.

There's the other challenge from Amazon, which uses a variant of Android that won't run some popular Android apps unless users do some major tinkering. Despite using the same operating system, Amazon actually competes against Android for the attention of developers.

Microsoft, which last week unveiled Windows 8 and Windows RT for tablets and other touch devices, could also start drawing in developers.

"Google is running out of time on this front, as Apple is running way ahead... and Microsoft is starting to attract attention to Windows 8 and RT, particularly with the Surface," said Avi Greengart, who covers consumer devices for Current Analysis.

Where's the Google Play tablet section?
While there are some Android tablet apps, Google could further cement its support of tablet apps with a dedicated section for such programs in Google Play, analysts say. Currently, there isn't a section in its app store for tablet apps, even while there's one front and center in Apple's App Store.

Yet Google has no plans to create a separate section in the store. Yerga said he doesn't see Google Play as a department store with multiple sections, but a place to get a custom-tailored suit. Likewise, Google doesn't want to break out its store into sections.

But that presents a perception problem as Apple touts its iPad app figure to the public, which makes a compelling case to consumer that the iPad can do more things than an Android tablet. Google doesn't want to get drawn in.

"Our focus there is trying to make sure we're getting quality out there," Yerga said, hoping that consumer word of mouth and the stronger experience will translate into higher interest from others.

Google also hasn't been that vocal about building tablet apps, something that needs to change, analysts say.

"Google needs to better highlight the ability in its (software development kit) to create different user interfaces for different screen sizes within a single app," Greengart said.

The company has started to get more proactive about getting the word out on tablet-optimized apps, providing tips and education to developers, while pushing more tablet apps to consumers using the Nexus 7. Yerga pointed to a few success stories, such as the tablet-specific versions of personal finance app Mint seeing the frequency of use increase seven times, while the mobile game Tiny Village saw a 35 percent boost in revenue from the tablet version. Reading app Instapaper saw a 600 percent increase in downloads when the Nexus 7 was first available for order.

If there's any tablet asking for its own apps, it's the Nexus 10. The tablet boasts a resolution of 2,560 by 1,600, or 300 pixels per inch, making it the most visually impressive tablet in the market -- including the Retina Display-rocking iPad. Perhaps Google could get some assistance from its manufacturer, Samsung.

The iPad has entered the business world largely because companies have shown a willingness to build specific apps for Apple's tablet. A strong partner like Samsung could sponsor the development of industry-specific apps, Lopez said.

Indeed, Samsung has shown a willingness to foster app development in devices such as televisions and refrigerators, and could throw its weight behind Android tablets. The company already has a large portfolio of Android tablets, from the Galaxy Tab devices to its Galaxy Note 10.1, and could benefit from the expanded ecosystem.

Ultimately, the onus is on Google to step it up. Google and its partners have the hardware part down, but still needs to show it can step it up when it comes to apps.