February 01, 2011, 9:11 PM —
Samsung's Galaxy Tab is generally seen as the iPad's biggest competitor thus far. The Android tablet has sold millions of units to date. Unfortunately, about 15% of them end up heading back to retailers.
The news broke today that somewhere between 13% and 16% of Galaxy Tabs are returned after purchase according to a study by ITG Investment Research. That contrasted that with Apple's iPad return rate, which the paper reports to be around 2%. That sounds like good news for Apple and bad news for Android as a tablet platform, but it also has to be considered in context.
The Galaxy Tab was the first Android tablet to achieve mass market acceptance at anywhere near the volume of the iPad. Shipping this fall, the Galaxy Tab seemed like a good iPad competitor. It is solidly built, offers good performance, beats out the iPad in terms of expandable storage, and shipped in the U.S. on multiple carriers as well as in a Wi-Fi-only model. Sales were strong and the Tab hit the one million units sold mark in a roughly similar timeframe to the iPad.
So, what's up with the returns? I think the return rate boils down to two factors, neither of which reflect badly on the specs, workmanship, or reliability of the device itself.
First up is the form factor. The Galaxy Tab opts for a smaller 7-inch form factor than the iPad. We all remember Steve Jobs having a rant about this during Apple's earnings call this fall, but he may have a point. Seven inches is a good size for some tasks (reading ebooks, checking email, viewing and posting to Facebook and Twitter, and browsing the web). It isn't a great form factor for writing long passages like reports, managing spreadsheets, or crafting and reviewing presentations, particularly if you need to use an onscreen keyboard (let's face it even the iPad's landscape orientation keyboard can be too small sometimes).
I'm not saying that a 7-inch tablet is altogether bad, but I am suggesting that for some tasks, it may be a bit limiting. A related complaint I've heard about the Galaxy Tab is that it doesn't have as large an edge around the touchscreen for gripping as the iPad. Again, this doesn't make the Galaxy Tab bad overall, but it can make using it for certain tasks a bit challenging, particularly if you have big hands or fingers. So, it's possible that some users discover these impediments after purchase and opt to return the device because of their needs.
The second likely culprit, which I think is more likely to be an issue, is that the Galaxy Tab runs Froyo (Android 2.2). Google has been very clear that Froyo was never intended as an OS for tablet devices. While Samsung has done a good job of making the overall Android interface work well on the Tab, third-party applications, widgets, and other add-ons don't fare nearly so well. The result can be a less than ideal user experience. Compared to iOS running on an iPad and taking full advantage of the extra screen real estate, this is likely to disappoint a number of users. Casual users (as opposed to technology fans) may feel cheated considering the cost of the Galaxy Tab and the fact some features and apps make the device look like an oversized smartphone. That disappointment could easily explain a higher return rate.
While it's easy for Apple fans to look at these numbers and feel secure that the iPad will remain leaps and bounds ahead of the competition (not to mention a little smug), such thinking is premature and may be downright wrong. Froyo wasn't designed for tablets, but Honeycomb (of which Google is about to offer an in-depth preview) is designed specifically for tablets. It will no doubt address all of the interface issues.
And whatever you think about tablet form factors (feel free to share your thoughts in the comments if you think seven inches is an ideal factor, by the way), the sheer number of Android tablets shown or announced at CES prove that there will be plenty of options in a variety of form factors ranging from the original Dell Streak's five inches to the Motorola Xoom's slightly larger than iPad dimensions. There will also be a range of specs, features, and price points. That range of choice may be the biggest competitive factor for Android tablets compared to the iPad.
It seems obvious that the return rates for the Galaxy Tab are probably just a minor footnote in the first chapter of the tablet saga. The rest of the book has yet to be written.