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A significant portion of the 1.6 million square feet covered by the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week was dedicated to a bewildering variety of tablet computers from all manner of companies. But whether any of these devices succeed or fail likely rests with two companies without booths at the show: Apple and Google.

With the launch of the iPad last April, Apple single-handedly created a viable market for consumer tablets for the first time. Although Windows tablets and BlackBerry’s PlayBook were shown at CES, the majority of tablets taking on the iPad will use the Android operating system developed by Google, originally for smart phones. That puts these devices at the mercy of the search and advertising giant, which is still finishing up Android 3.0, designed specifically for tablets. Meanwhile, the goal line could soon shift because Apple is widely expected to deliver a second, improved version of the iPad inside six months.

Android 3.0, dubbed Honeycomb (all Android releases are named after sweets), was announced by Google only last week, and a handful of tablets that will use it were on show at CES. But none of these was ready to put into the hands of the eager press or any other CES attendees. The devices were at best waved briefly on stage at a press event or shown playing videos of what they would eventually be able to do.

The Motorola Xoom, a tablet that will launch by March exclusively on Verizon, was the most talked about of the Honeycomb tablets, and it won the CES Best In Show award. The Xoom’s hardware is more capable than the iPad’s: it has a 10.1 inch screen that can play full 1080p HD video, front and rear cameras, and a powerful dual-core NVIDIA graphics processor. It can also handle Adobe’s Flash software, which is incompatible with the iPad and which is used for a great deal of interactive content and video on the Web.

A fully working version of the Xoom has yet to be demonstrated, so it’s hard to know whether the device really will match the iPad’s slick user experience. The video running on the device gave only hints of how Android has been adapted to the tablet format. Changes from the previous phone-centric versions of Android include a Gmail client that makes full use of the screen’s width, a Google Chat application designed for video chat, and a new Google eBooks app that looks similar to Apple’s iBooks on the iPad. Click here to see a video from Google showcasing Honeycomb’s features. After announcing Honeycomb last week, Google has declined to answer any queries about its capabilities, requirements, and rollout.

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Credit: ETC@CES

Tagged: Computing, Google, tablet, CES, Honeycomb

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