The only iPad feature I’m jealous of is contract-free mobile data

March 8, 2012
20

Apple unveiled its latest iPad in San Francisco yesterday, and as usual, the tech world and more established media swooned at the shiny new piece of engineered obsolescence. As a die-hard Android fan, I wasn't moved - sure, the screen is nice (even if it's still the wrong ratio) and the processor is impressive, but my distaste for Apple as a manufacturer, developer and corporation is more than enough to overcome any fleeting feeling of hardware lust. But there's one feature that remains exclusive to the iPad that I want, badly, and it isn't coming to Android any time soon: wireless data without a contract.

With the new iPad 3 as with the previous two incarnations, you'll be able to buy a new tablet from a carrier (AT&T or Verizon) and sign up for a recurring data plan. But unlike almost every single smartphone, including the iPhone, you won't be forced to sign a new two-year contract to do so. Even with the new LTE radio (welcome to 2011, Apple!) you can drop the data at any time, and start it up again later without any sort of penalty. You know, the way wireless data payments should work.

In the United States, there's not a single Android mobile broadband tablet that you can buy at its retail price without a contract. All of them - even the ones that cost as much as an iPad - require a two-year contract or extension, even for users who already have phone service with the same company. Oh sure, you can opt for the "contract free" price, usually for a solid $200 or more on top of the advertised price. This forced application of mobile data is what's keeping Android tablet adoption down the most, at least for mobile broadband versions.

Why is this? To put it bluntly, Apple's got the clout. They're still selling more than two iPads for every Android tablet, mobile broadband connection or not. Android is winning the smartphone race by a healthy margin, perhaps due in no small part to the fact that it competes evenly with iOS on almost every carrier in every market. But for tablets, the average user wants the iPad, and is willing to pay hundreds of dollars more for it. Carriers know this, and more significantly, Apple knows that carriers know it, and forces some pretty enviable terms out of both AT&T and Verizon. Terms that no Android manufacturer can seem to match.

The vast, vast majority of Android sales are for WiFi-only tablets. That's not because everyone out there is as savvy as the average Android Community reader and roots their smartphone for a free WiFi access point. No, it's the simple fact that people don't want to be saddled with yet another recurring bill that they're stuck with for years at a time. Carriers aren't going to change this arrangement because they're more than happy with things the way they are, and would probably force Apple to do the same if they could.

What's the solution? Listen up, Android tablet makers: include HSPA+ and LTE radios in the WiFi tablets you're making already, and sell them directly at retail. Plenty of manufacturers do this, just not in the United States - our dug-in wireless industry has them by the short hairs. Sell us the tablets we want with the connections we crave, and let us buy the data from carriers separately. I myself would be willing to pay an extra $100 to do so, though you'd be well-advised to add the radios and SIM card slots for the current prices. The iPad 2 just dropped to $399, giving you a new limbo price bar to slide under.

High-res screen? Not impressed. LTE? Been there, done that. An always-on connection that I don't always have to pay for? Now that's magic. Samsung, Asus, Acer, Motorola: this is what we want.


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  • superlinkx

    I think the reason why most of the tablets in the last year have neglected cellular data is because the Tegra 2/3, which most of them used, didn’t have cellular versions. Hopefully, that will change later this year, and it would be nice if there were more options for discrete cellular chipsets (aka the cellular chips aren’t built into the SoC’s)

  • http://twitter.com/mikeGsays Mike Garcia

    Not to mention………  Verizon announced that they will offer mobile hotspot with the iPad data plan at no additional charge!  It’s like they’re straight screwing Android tablet owners with stuff like this!!!

    • Richardl

      What are you talking about? It’s the same for Android tablets on Verizon. I pay no additional fee for hot spot use with the Xoom. We had a Samsung for which we paid no hot spot fee either.

  • N8shon

    These are very good points made here Mr. Crider. Which Wi-fi only version Android tablet (if any) would you recommend? (hotspot from my phone-”savvy” user and all, haha) I’m starting to shop for one. 

    • http://www.androidcommunity.com Michael Crider

      I bought a Galaxy Tab 8.9 for myself way back in October, and I’m very happy with it. A bit expensive, but the size is just right in my opinion. If I were in the market right now, I’d wait for the Asus Memo 370T to get here.  

      • N8shon

        Ahh, gotcha. Impressive specs on that Asus from what I’ve read. Do you think it will really hit the $249 price point for the wi-fi only version direct from them? If so, it looks to be more than worth the risk of purchase. 

  • MichaelCriderIsADumbass

    Not impressed with the high res screen? Obviously you aren’t since it’s not branded Samsung, or any other company supporting Android.  But when they come out with a 1920 x 1080 screen, it’s OH MY GOD LOOK HIGH RES.  Yeah, you have a distaste for Apple as a manufacturer, developer, and corporation.  It’s much better to support companies that just copy Apple designs and can’t do anything on their own.  What a dumbass.

    • N8shon

      Leave. Flaming is not welcome and only serves to embarrass you.

    • Androidess

      That’s too bad you feel that way… The author is stating exactly, how I feel. Long Lost brother of mine , maybe?

  • Hazeblaze777

    Where have you been? You didn’t have to sign a two year contract for the Xoom or Galaxy Tab w/ Verizon either. Not sure about AT&T.

  • Kengardner Cu

    I’m an Android guy for phones but have to say I love my iPad 2. IMO the aspect ratio epitomizes Apple’s design brilliance.

    • ultimatedroidfanz

      Android traitor. You best hope back into the android camp. Support android at all cost. Buy a few android tablets. Apple brainwashed everybody. We android fans know better!!!! Apple makes crappy hardware period

  • Matt107

    Before I used an iPad I thought the 4:3 ratio screen would be odd, but after using one I found it much more versatile than the 16:10 ratio. The screen is still HD so the HD content plays great, and I find SD content looks better when it is in the full screen. (maybe I am just used to bars being on top and not the sides, but I find it looks better). The biggest benefit is when it is held in the portrait orientation. It feels far more natural as tablet doesn’t become too tall and skinny. I wish more Android tablets would use this aspect ratio, or at least give us the options of 4:3 variants.

  • Richardl

    I have Verizon pay-as-you-go for my Xoom. 1GB for $20. No activation fees only pay for what you use. Before that I had month-to-month (also $20/GB/mo) which had an activation fee if you cancelled and reactivated.

  • Anamika

    In the United States, there’s not a single Android mobile broadband
    tablet that you can buy at its retail price without a contract – is this for real? What happened to capitalism and competition?

    • Walt French

      I can report that capitalism is alive and well here. 

      But Android phones have relied on Google’s very clever ad- and contract-subsidized model for success. Apple cleverly pulled that rug out from under potential tablet competitors by establishing a month-to-month standard for wireless data on tablets, and the ad subsidies aren’t enough to cover Apple’s enormous quality/price advantages. 

      Amazon has challenged this with its media and other retail subsidy scheme; that looks like it can work at the lower quality point but wouldn’t be enough to be cost-competitive at the high end.

  • http://www.djcube.co.uk Cube1701

    I didn’t realise it was like that in the US. I think the UK method is much better.

    If we want, we can get most phones/tablets at full price with no contact.

    We can also get most phones for “free” with a contract. On top of this, there are various price points – so we can pay less per month if we partially pay for the phone. 

  • firethorn

    that is US-only. in Europe, we have contract-free mobile data everywhere and for all devices.
    Which means, except for the screen which is admittedly nice there’s absolutely nothing special about the iPad 2S for us. :)

    • Walt French

      We don’t yet have comparable info on games; they’re a key category for almost ALL personal buyers of mobile devices. Early indications are that the iPad will be a MUCH more powerful, attractive gaming device; developers have put a LOT more effort into iPhone and iPad games because they offer better gaming experience. So that’ll translate well, too.

      Then there’s the business angle. You can’t read an IT-centric article about tablets without seeing concerns about Androids’ security and management issues. Enterprise shops pine for a solution from Microsoft, but settle for Apple and avoid Androids.

      Apps: the last I saw of video-editing on Android was just miserable, while Apple is on its second iteration. The new iPhoto is a joy: you can’t do everything that you might do on a high-end photo editor, but the majority of what people WANT to do, is done easily and quickly. Ditto, a whole host of other apps: first & best on iProducts.

      With this week’s announcements, Android manufacturers may be able to beat Apple in some areas (e.g., NFC) or in hardware. But they will be hard-pressed to show that they offer a better customer experience to anybody besides those who like being Personal Systems Architects.

  • Walt French

    “ To put it bluntly, Apple’s got the clout. They’re still selling more than two iPads for every Android tablet, mobile broadband connection or not.”

    Interestingly, two years ago when Apple introduced the iPad at $499, the Dell Streak had been announced. The 800X400 Streak came from a high-volume, low-cost firm, but at $549, never took off. Still, early in 2010, it was out-selling the iPad Something-to-Nothing. The iPad had no “clout.” But what id *did* have, was performance. Early reviews used the word, “snappy.” It did what it claimed to, smoothly, quickly and without hassles. None of that applied to the Streak. The iPad got traction because it delivered.

    So the iPad’s “clout” is a manifestation of all of Apple’s hard work on top-flight engineering; ecosystem; real, honest-to-God first-rate apps both from Apple and 3rd parties; best-in-the-industry customer service and support. Yes, for some reason carriers like to offer products that will actually appeal to customers. Call it “clout” if you like, but the economics of carrying the Android Contender of the Week are just plain lousy because of the high retailing costs without 2-year data lock-ins.

    The Android model will work better when hardware costs drop maybe another $100 or so, where the bill of materials are maybe $100. Then, like Amazon is doing with the Fire, Google can perhaps subsidize a giveaway model based on future revenues; that could compensate sellers like Verizon for their retailing expense. But by establishing a month-to-month data plan as the standard, Apple has knocked out the opportunity for data contracts to subsidize the sale and tablet costs are too high. Or, Android apps and devices can try to beat Apple at its own game of high quality. Apple appears unwilling to concede the high ground there and it looks like a long, hard slog to make a frontal assault on the powerhouse that today’s Apple iPad is.