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Androids Will Challenge the iPad

Tablets powered by Google’s mobile operating system are set to debut.

Apple’s iPad is certain to grab headlines when it hits stores next month. But a number of touch-screen tablets powered by Google’s Android operating system will also debut this year. Competing with Apple’s latest consumer gadget won’t be easy, but analysts say the software behind these devices could give them a few key advantages.

Tap and go: This prototype device runs on the Android operating system and features a customizable home screen. The interface was created by Boston-based company Tap ‘n Tap.

Like the iPhone OS, which will power the iPad, Android was originally developed for cell phones. This means it will be fast and low-power. “Android is very responsive; it’s instantly available,” says Jeff Orr, a senior analyst for mobile devices at ABI Research.

It can also make use of apps already developed for Android phones. “The real benefit [of using Android] is that it taps into this ecosystem of developers that have latched onto Android,” says Carl Howe, analyst and director of the Anywhere Consumer Research division of the Yankee Group. Most importantly, some of these Android devices come with features that the iPad currently lacks–the ability to run Flash, for example, as well as a webcam and software multitasking.

Several companies showed off Android-based tablets at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January. Taiwanese computer makers Compal, MSI, and Quanta all gave demos of Android-powered devices with screens between seven and 10 inches and powered by Nvidia’s Tegra 2 microprocessor.

Also at CES was an Indian company called Notion Ink, which demonstrated an Android tablet called Adam. The company showed two versions–one featuring a lower-power Pixel Qi display with three display modes, and the other featuring a regular LCD. The Adam also uses the Tegra 2, features a rotating webcam, and is expected to cost between $327 and $800. It is scheduled to go on sale later this year.

French computer maker Archos already sells an Android tablet with a five-inch screen called the Archos 5 Internet Tablet, for $499. And, perhaps most significantly, the third-largest computer maker in the world, Dell, is rumored to be developing a five-inch, multitouch, Android-driven tablet, which may be announced later this year.

A Boston-based technology and design firm called Tap ‘n Tap is partnering with undisclosed OEMs to develop a customized interface for Android-powered tablets. Dubbed “home Internet devices,” they should be available in the second half of 2010. One device will have a seven-inch LCD touch screen and will cost about $299. Some versions will have 3G and GPS, while others will have just Wi-Fi, according to Tap ‘n Tap founder Javier Segovia who demonstrated the seven-inch prototype for Technology Review.

Rather than a blank screen with a list of icons, Tap ‘n Tap’s prototype has a home page with “portlets”–customizable areas that can showed weather, news and pictures. “A mobile phone spends most of the time in your pocket, but these devices are on the kitchen wall or a table in your bedroom, so we want the screen to be useful other than just being a launcher,” says Segovia.

The prototype has a web camera, can play Flash, and can run more than one program at once. The user interface is smooth and intuitive. A bar at the bottom of the screen can be used to launch applications: web browser, calendar, contact book and a Facebook app. “Tap ‘n Tap’s bet is similar to Apple’s in that we also believe in the power of the third-party app developer ecosystem and the consumer dynamic of downloading apps,” says Segovia.

Yankee Group’s Howe says the issue for all these touch-screen devices will be how much consumer demand there is. “The real questions are, what is the consumer use for these devices, and what essential need do they fulfill,” says Howe.

Developers and analysts agree that this new class of device will most likely be used around the home, and primarily for entertainment rather than work or communications. “We expect there will be around four million devices shipped this year,” says Orr. About 100,000 media tablets were shipped from vendors last year. In comparison, four million e-readers and 35 million netbooks were shipped.

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