Some companies that announced upcoming Honeycomb tablets at CES did not even show video of them in action. Acer’s flagship Iconia tablet, due for release in April, was seen running only Android 2.2 (Froyo), as were about a half dozen tablets from Asus, including some with pen and keyboard input.
Since the new Android OS is apparently being released only to select partners, other companies showed new tablets that will launch using older versions of Android. Samsung unveiled a new version of the Galaxy Tab—the first major challenger to the iPad—running only Android 2.2 and talked of upgrading to 2.3, not 3.0. Dell showed a new version of its seven-inch Streak tablet running the same software.
When Apple’s tablet debuted it was with a clearer message to consumers. “Remember that when Apple launched the iPad, they talked about the interface and experience, not so much about the technical specs and hardware—that’s what sold it to consumers,” says Robert Thompson, director of smart mobile devices at Freescale Semiconductor, which makes the processor found in Amazon’s and Sony’s e-reading devices and in a slew of Android tablets already on sale in Asia and Europe.
The still unclear state of Honeycomb means that the companies announcing tablets running the software can’t yet boast about the user experience. Upgrading hardware designed for one version of Android to another has proven difficult in the past, Thompson adds, and doing so for the tablets waiting for the final Honeycomb release may prove challenging.
Harry Wang, director of mobile-product research at analysts Parks Associates, says consumers may already be confused about the current state of the Android tablet offerings. With Honeycomb in its early stages and many new devices still employing older versions of Android, the overall picture is hard to discern for both end users and manufacturers, he says.
“Unfortunately, Android has been loaded onto some devices that aren’t suited to it,” he says. “That has creates some awkward experiences and low expectations that do a disservice to Honeycomb and to the market as a whole.” He expects manufacturers that wait six months or so to offer devices running a finished and fully tested version of Honeycomb will do best.
Unfortunately, Apple is expected to announce the updated iPad inside the first half of the year. “I think it will be the same size,” says Wang, “but Apple will bring some new innovations—probably longer battery life, maybe lower weight.” Some rumors suggest that the iPad 2, as it has been dubbed, will feature a screen viewable in direct sunlight, he says.
Apple’s devices are likely to remain top of the growing tablet pile, says Wang. “There won’t be an ‘iPad killer,’ but as with Android phones, there will be a large number of different models that together have more users than Apple.” Wang estimates that 13 million tablets will ship worldwide this year.