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Is Google About to Reinvent the Tablet?

By Sam Mattera – Mar 25, 2016 at 11:11AM

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Leaked benchmarks suggest a Project Ara tablet could be in development.

Google's Project Ara logo. Source: Google.

Alphabet's (GOOG 2.65%) (GOOGL 2.81%) Google could be about to deliver the most revolutionary new tablet in years.

Last month a massive, 13.8-inch tablet from the search giant showed up in GFXBench's database. The benchmarker has been a reliable source of device leaks in recent years. In 2015, the Nexus 6P and LG G4 showed up in its database weeks before they were formally unveiled. According to GFXBench, the device won't come equipped with any particularly impressive hardware, but could be distinguished by something quite radical: modularity.

Google's ambitious plan to reinvent the smartphone
In 2014, Google announced Project Ara, an innovative initiative from its Advanced Technologies and Products (ATAP) Group. At the time, Google's team of engineers and designers had set out to remake the smartphone, giving it a feature it has long lacked.

Traditional PCs, most notably desktops and to some extent laptops, have offered a certain degree of modularity for most of their history. Key components, such as hard drives, video cards, RAM modules, and even motherboards, can be swapped out or upgraded over time. In doing so, consumers can extend the lives of their machines, or augment them with greater capabilities whenever they desire.

But the same has never been true of smartphones or tablets. A few can have their storage expanded with microSD cards, but it's virtually impossible to upgrade the camera module, processor, or cellular radio. With the right tools, some users may be able to swap out a cracked screen, but it's certainly not an easy process.

With Project Ara, Google is hoping to change that. Project Ara smartphones are composed of a series of modular bricks, which (almost like Legos) slide into a magnetic skeleton. Each module contains a different component -- say, the camera sensor, or the battery -- which can be swapped out for replacements on the fly. Project Ara phones may not be able to offer the same performance as comparably priced non-modular phones, but over time, the ability to upgrade and replace components could reduce the cost of ownership and lead to a flurry of innovation. It also could put pressure on Google's biggest rival in the smartphone space, Apple (AAPL 1.56%), giving Android a unique selling point over the iPhone.

But it was always speculative: Project Ara has never received a firm release date. Last year, at Google's developer conference, the company unveiled a working prototype, which stoked faith that it would eventually see the light of day. Google planned to conduct a public test of the phones in Puerto Rico during the second half of 2015, but late in the summer, announced that the test had been delayed indefinitely.

Since then, there's been little news, and with each passing day, Project Ara runs the risk of becoming vaporware.

Android's lagging tablet success
Or at least, that had been the case until last month, when Google's tablet showed up in the GFXBench database. Labeled a Project Ara tablet, it suggests that Google could be expanding its modularity initiative to larger devices. On May 18, Google will hold its 2016 developer conference, and a Project Ara tablet could make for an interesting announcement.

Regardless, there's a good chance this year's Google I/O will center around Android tablets. In recent years, Google has used the conference to announce and detail the latest version of its Android operating system. Earlier this month, Google released an early preview of the next version of Android (Android N) aimed at developers. Android N is likely to include support for a vast array of new features, but the most crucial may center around multitasking.

Last year, Apple gave its iPads multitasking capabilities. With iOS 9, newer iPad models can run two tablet apps simultaneously. Obviously, this allows for much greater productivity and convenience. Some of Google's hardware partners have implemented multitasking capabilities in their own tablets, but to date, the core Android operating system has lacked such a feature. With Android N, that will change, as Google will bring multitasking to stock Android for the first time. Owners of larger Android phones will certainly benefit, but Android tablet owners could see the bigger boost.

Google's mobile operating system powers the majority of the world's smartphones and tablets, but it hasn't had as much success conquering the tablet market as it has the smartphone market. More than 80% of the world's smartphones are powered by Android, but only 68% of the world's tablets use Google's operating system.

In November, research firm Strategy Analytics projected that Google's share of the tablet market would decline in the coming years, falling to just 59% in 2019. Apple would see a slight boost (moving from 22% to 23%), but Windows would be the real winner, nearly doubling its share of the tablet market (from 10% to 18%) at Android's expense.

Android tablets have been cheap, but not very impressive. With a radical new device, and Android N, that could change.

Suzanne Frey, an executive at Alphabet, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Sam Mattera has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Alphabet (A shares), Alphabet (C shares), and Apple. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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