Google’s new Nexuses: do we have a two tier tablet market?

Google has launched two new tablet - a revamped Nexus 7 and a new Nexus 10. Are they iPad competitors - or the herald of a split tablet market?

The hurricane sweeping into the USA’s east coast may have stopped today’s Google event – but it didn’t stop the announcements. This afternoon, a blog post from Andy Rubin showed us what we would have seen.

First up were three new Android devices with the pure Google experience: the Nexus 4,7 and 10. This pretty much confirms the current shape of the mobile/tablet ecosystem: handheld phones, 7″ (or thereabouts) tablets, and 10″ tablets. Google is spreading its way into iPad territory, even as Apple edges downwards into Nexus 7 territory with the new iPad mini.

The prices are ferociously competitive: the Nexus 10, the new iPad competitor starts at $399 for 16Gb, which is $100 less than the base iPad (4th generation) – and identical to the 18 month old iPad 2. The Nexus 7 gains 3G connectivity in its 32Gb incarnation for $299, whereas an iPad mini with the same will cost you $559 – but it does come with LTE. That’s a $260 difference, nearly enough to but two Nexus 7s for one iPad mini…

Apple is clearly now relying on its premium positioning to justify its costs – and the time it spent doing  direct head-to-head comparison between the (unnamed) Nexus 7 and the iPad mini at last week’s event made that pretty darn clear. But digging through Google’s announcement, it even appears that Google is building a differentiation into the Android versus iOS tablet debate. Look at this bit of copy:

Nexus 10 is the ultimate tablet for watching movies or reading magazines. We wanted to build a premium entertainment device, so we partnered with Samsung to do just that.

The focus is on a content experience. The Nexus 7 copy is interesting, too:

Nexus 7 brings you the best of Google–YouTube, Chrome, Gmail, Maps–and all the great content from Google Play in a slim, portable package that fits perfectly in your hand.

If I were an Android developer, I’d be getting a little twitchy about the focus on Google apps and services – there’s nary a mention of the Android app ecosystem to be found in here. And that’s pretty bizarre. I’m a happy Nexus 7 user, and find the app ecosystem far better than I expected as a long-term iOS user with all the biases that implies.

There appear to be two very distinct messages here. Apple is saying “hey, here’s a cool device that could replace your PC”. Google is saying “here’s a really cool way of consuming content – on which you can use Google services, too.” That latter message is familiar. In fact, it sounds a lot like Amazon’s message around the Kindle line.

If that’s the case, then actually we’re seeing the tablet market split in two. In the value end, selling devices at close to cost, we have Amazon and Google scrapping for market share with devices sold close to cost. Amazon has the content ecosystem, but Google has the apps. It’s going to be a rough fight…

That leaves Apple focusing on the market for whom the tablet is becoming their primary PC – and that actually puts them locking horns with their old enemy: Microsoft. The last week has seen the Surface and Windows 8 finally hit the market – and they’re also charging premium prices for devices that could replace your PC.

Perhaps the story of the last week isn’t so much that we now have two categories of tablets – big and small – as much as we have people fighting to entertain us, and people fighting to change the way we think about computing. Two big fights – but not the same fight at all.