The state of the tablet

by Dave Loft

Tablets were as inevitable as paper but it wasn’t till 2010 that we had the hardware fast enough to run the software well and small enough to fit in the thin form factor. Apple has had impeccable timing and implementation when it came to the iPod, iPhone and iPad. In 2010, tablets were dominated by Apple in a market caught off guard by the low price and prediction breaking sales numbers of the iPad. The only viable competitor wasn’t even a direct competitor when you step back and look at them.

The iPad is the same size as a small laptop and allowed users and developers to think big when it came to apps.  Apples goal is to put iPads in every consumers hands and leave the Macbook Pro’s for the content creators. The fact is the vast majority of people using a laptop today do very little with it. Why lug around a much heavier laptop with it’s short battery life just to email and browse the web when you can get a tablet with 1/4 the weight and 4 times the battery life.

On the left is the Apple iPad, on the right is the Samsung Galaxy Tab. Tablets are to scale.

The difference between the Galaxy Tab’s 7″ display compared to the iPad’s 9.7″ is much more pronounced in picture then in print. But that smaller size lends itself much more on the go usage. You can easily carry the Galaxy Tab in your purse or jacket pocket and that 7″ display in portrait makes for some excellent thumb typing. The device also makes a much better reading device with a display closer in size to a paperback book and the weight nearly half that of the iPad. The issue with the Galaxy Tab is it does not replace your laptop and as such has kept this device a niche product.

Apple’s to Android’s

The first major step for Android towards a better tablet future was the announcement of Honeycomb. Honeycomb is a version of Android optimized specifically for tablets. Honeycomb brings desktop OS elements in to Android and actually takes advantage of the extra screen real estate. Just taking the same UI of the phone and streching it to the size of a tablet as the iPad has done won’t cut it going forward.

While the main UI is important, optimized apps is even more crucial to success. This is the area where Apple is currently very strong. The apps on the iPad are what make it a great device. Android developers will have some catching up to do once the first Honeycomb devices hit. Thankfully Google has implemented an easy was for developers to make a single app and have it work well on phones and tablets. This should allow for rapid deployment of tablet optimized apps.

Just how quickly Android Tablet apps are made available will determine if Android will take over tablets by the end of 2011 or if it will take till 2012. Either way it’s inevitable that Android will overtake Apple in the tablet space, just as they did with smartphones. I know there are many people who are skeptical, but not many people thought Android could overtake Apple in the smartphone space when they launched their first phone just a little over two years ago.

Android tablets look to follow the Android smartphone approach with more powerful devices, different sizes and configurations from multiple manufacturers. So far there have been four big tablet announcements for Android this year.

Clockwise from top left; Motorola Xoom, Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, LG Optimus One and HTC Flyer.
Click on the image to get a closer look. Tablets are to scale.

Looking at this lineup and you can see Nvidia has done a great job getting their dual core chips in the majority of devices. But I think the main reason for this is availability as Texas Instruments, Qualcomm and Samsung do not have their dual core ready in the quantities required for this launch.

Stock Android is one of the thing that many will champion about these new Honeycomb Android devices. I’m sorry to disappointed everyone but it has nothing to do with any Google implemented policy or the manufacturers preference to release a stock device. It simple has to do with the fact that they have the hardware ready and are waiting on Google to finish Honeycomb.  I suspect that almost all Honeycomb devices released after the first half of 2011 will have their customizations back in effect.

I have no issue with manufacturers trying to customize their device. HTC has done a great job on their phones. I much prefer the optimized apps on my Galaxy S to the stock camera app, music player and  lame video playback capability of stock Android. If you just don’t like the basic user interface, Launcher Pro and ADW Launcher do a great job of replicating stock Android while also providing more customization. Love it or hate it, tablets will find themselves in much the same situation.

Now some might say that customization is the reason in the delay of phone updates. I have heard it used as the reason why Samsung hasn’t updated all of their Galaxy S devices yet. But that’s an American point of view and in Canada, all Galaxy S devices have been updated and their running the same customization. I think the main reason updates take so long is the shear number of devices and the magnitude of configuration options on these devices.

But as I see it, having the latest OS is not as critical as some make it out to be. As long you have 2.2 you will be guaranteed to have the latest Google apps and support of almost every application. It’s also worth noting that even though the HTC Flyer and the original Samsung Galaxy Tab do not run Honeycomb, there is no reason tablet optimized apps won’t run on them. Much of the added functionality that the Honeycomb SDK brings carry over to older devices. An app that takes advantage of  Honeycomb’s fragments that allows the same app to work on your phone and tablet will work with devices as far back as 1.6.

Bloggers and tech reporters really exaggerate the ‘fragmentation’ issue. Typically today they get half a dozen new Android devices to review every month. I can understand their frustration as each one offers a different UI and button configuration and just as they get used to one, they get another device to review and get used to. But for the rest of us who get a device and use it for 6 to 24 months, it really doesn’t matter. I went from the Nexus One to a Galaxy S, a stock Android UI to Samsung’s TouchWiz. Yet even though the UI is different all my apps still run just the same. It is after all the apps that make a smartphone and this is the key to Android. The Android Market allows a developer to reach multiple devices from a single ecosystem. It was the key to Android taking the smartphone market and it will happen all over again with tablets.

The HP RIM Shot

There are two other players in the tablet space I have yet to talk about. RIM who is currently in a downward spiral with sales of their smartphone and are in desperate need of a refresh. Rim has chosen QNX as their platform of choice going forward, but so far it only appears to be coming to tablets.

On the left is the Blackberry Playbook and on the right is the HP TouchPad. Tablets are to scale.

Hp bought Palm in 2010 and are using that acquisition to offer a complete package like RIM and Apple they will completely control their mobile platform, from hardware to software. I’m not sure the strategy will work so well for RIM or HP as they lack Apple’s finesse in vertical integration.

As mentioned before Apple’s success in the tablet space is mainly due to their developers. Developers who were already familiar with iOS were easily able to create apps to take advantage of the larger screen device. Web OS does not have the same developer support and have already been passed by Windows Phone 7 in number of apps. RIM will be in worse shape as they are using an all new platform for their tablet. As it stands it’s very unlikely RIM or HP will have an app ecosystem that can compete with Google, let alone Apple.

For RIM to succeed they will need to convince Businesses to get Playbook’s in their employee’s hands. For HP to succeed they will need to use their strong ties in the retail space to drive the TouchPad home. If they don’t succeed in getting these devices in customers hands they won’t have a chance at convincing developers to make applications and without applications their tablets are dead in the water.


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