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Honeycomb Hangover: Is Android 3.0 a Bust?

You can blame the high price. Or that it's heavier and thicker than the iPad 2. Or the lack of 4G at launch. Whatever the reason, according to Deutsche Bank, Motorola has sold only 100,000 Xooms since it and Verizon Wireless debuted the first Android 3.0 (a.k.a. Honeycomb) tablet in late February. Meanwhile, a DigiTimes report claims that Apple sold 2.6 million iPad 2 tablets in the month of March. Yes, all of the above factors come into play, but it’s also very possible that consumers just aren’t excited about Honeycomb.

Acer, ASUS, Dell, HTC, Lenovo, LG, Motorola, Samsung, Toshiba; these are just some of the companies backing the OS Google built for slates from scratch. And if all of them were on sale right now and moved the same amount of units, Google would still be behind Apple by about 1.7 million. In my review of the Xoom, there were a lot of things I liked about the new Android platform, including improved notifications, slick interactive widgets, and tabbed web browsing. However, I also warned that Honeycomb has a learning curve, even if you’re already accustomed to using an Android phone.

Take the home screen on Android 3.0. There’s just a lot going on, with a search box on the top left, the app button on the top right, the menu buttons on the bottom left, and notifications on the bottom right. That’s a lot to process versus the more straightforward iPad, so much so that one colleague sent me the following direct message on Twitter: “I honestly found it one of the most painful experiences of any ‘modern’ device I’ve used in literally years. Terrible is my only adjective.”

I disagree with that sentiment, but I’m also a geek. So it’s not a coincidence that Google’s partners are already looking for ways to make Honeycomb more approachable without skinning it to death. For example, Samsung’s Galaxy Tab 8.9 and 10.1 tablets coming out this summer feature the company’s new TouchWiz 4.0 software, which lets you swipe up to launch a set of apps without leaving the one you’re on. Time will tell if users will appreciate tweaks like this or if it just adds to their confusion.

Although there have been reports claiming that Google is clamping down on the customization of its OS, yesterday Google’s Android guru Andy Rubin attempted to put the lock-down speculation to rest. In a blog post he wrote that Google doesn’t “believe in a ‘one size fits all’ solution” and that “device makers are free to modify Android to customize any range of features for Android devices.” But what if customers don’t like what’s underneath the differentiation?

The big question facing Rubin and his team is whether they need to merely do a better job educating users what you can do with Android 3.0 (through tutorial videos, perhaps) or do some serious streamlining. Instead of just iterating software and then letting companies run with it, Google could work more closely with the likes of HTC ahead of the next upgrade to make the UI more user-friendly without sacrificing versatility.

What’s certainly not helping is the number of tablet apps for Honeycomb. At last count there were about 50 of them in the redesigned Android Market, which is pretty pitiful compared to the 65,000 available for the iPad and the 3,000-plus expected for the upcoming BlackBerry PlayBook. There is definitely a chicken-and-egg situation going on here, and the soft sales of the Motorola Xoom definitely won’t inspire developers to jump on the bandwagon.

Right now Motorola is bearing the brunt of the criticism because it was first out of the gate with an Android 3.0 slate. But I guarantee you that everyone else poised to launch their own Honeycomb tablets is feeling a little stung by the Xoom’s reportedly slow start. It’s going to take more than lowering prices to compete with the iPad 2.

Responsible for the editorial vision for Laptop Mag and Tom's Guide, Mark Spoonauer has been Editor in Chief of LAPTOP since 2003 and has covered technology for nearly 15 years. Mark speaks at key tech industry events and makes regular media appearances on CNBC, Fox and CNN. Mark was previously reviews editor at Mobile Computing, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc.