The FlatPad A10 looks a lot like an Apple iPad, with the same black bezel and single circular button at the bottom of the screen. But the A10 costs only $220, compared to $499 for the cheapest (16-gigabyte, Wi-Fi-only) iPad. The A10 is also has a slot for more memory (micro-SD format); and most importantly, the A10 runs Google’s open source Android operating system, making it one of the first Android-based tablets available for sale in the U.S.
The A10’s specifications make it seem like a strong competitor to the iPad. This Android 2.1 device has a 10.2-inch touch screen. It has 256 megabits of RAM and two gigabytes of built-in flash. There’s Wi-Fi and an Ethernet port, two USB ports (one for programming the A10, one for connecting other devices), and built-in stereo speakers. It’s got a one-gigahertz processor, an accelerometer to detect screen orientation, and runs Google Maps. The battery lasts five hours.
But make no mistake, the A10 is no iPad. Manufactured in China by Zenithink and imported by Texas-based Flat Computing, the A10 lacks the quality and the software/hardware integration largely responsible for the iPad’s success.
But while it’s easy to dismiss the A10 as a knockoff, I think it’s better to examine this device as an early prototype that points to a possible future of tablet-based devices–and to a set of growing problems inside the Android ecology. These issues will need to be addressed if other recently announced Android-powered tablets–Samsung’s Galaxy, Toshiba’s Folio 100, and ViewSonic’s ViewPad 7–are to be successful.
Despite looking a lot like an iPad, the A10’s hardware falls short in several important ways. Whereas the iPad’s screen is 1024 by 768 pixels, the A10’s is 1024 by 600, and it turns out that those extra 168 pixels matter a lot. Instead of the iPad’s multitouch capacitive screen, the A10 has a resistive screen that works much better with a fingernail (or a pen cap) than with a fingertip. The screen lacks the brightness, clarity, and color of the iPad’s, presumably because Apple gets the best screen available to justify the iPad’s high price, while Zenithink bought a much cheaper touch screen. Yes, the A10 has stereo speakers, but they sound no better than the “stereo” speakers on many cell phones. The iPad’s mono sound port actually sounds much better. Even with my high-end headset, music sounds cheap and tinny on the A10.
The A10’s lack of software integration is borderline comical. For example, when the A10 turns on, it says that there is “No Service,” and the little cell phone indicator says that there are no bars–not surprising, since there is no cell phone chip inside. Zenithink appears to have used unmodified Android telephone software for this device. Like the iPad, the A10 has a black circular button with an outlined square, but the button is hooked up to Android’s “back” feature, not “home.” There is a rocker switch that looks like the iPad’s volume control, but the left rocker actually makes the Android menu appear, while the right rocker displays a list of currently running applications.
Even though it’s running Android, Google doesn’t let the A10 or any other of today’s tablet computers download Apps from the Android Marketplace. That’s because the Marketplace blocks devices that don’t meet minimum hardware standards–standards designed for cell phones. This will probably change when Google or one of its official hardware partners starts selling tablets for mainstream use. Until then, the only way to run Marketplace on the A10 is to grab the device ID from a real Android phone and program it into your A10, a complicated procedure that requires significant skill.
Instead of the Android marketplace, the A10 comes with something called the SlideME Marketplace–an independent market for Android apps. SlideME has only a few thousand apps, compared to Google’s tens of thousands. After some effort, I was able to download Opera Mini, the Android version of the once-popular Opera Web browser. The A10 displayed the somewhat reassuring message: “This application seems compatible with your device specifications and current system software version.” But when I ran Opera, the A10 froze. Only by resetting the A10 with an unbent paperclip and then restarting the device was I able to get Opera to finally run. Once I did, though, it ran flawlessly.
You might be tempted to think that it’s the first Android-based tablet to hit the market. It’s not. Both the Barnes & Noble Nook and the Archos Internet Tablet run Android. And while the Nook and the Archos are both respectable devices, they are closed systems in which the main functionality is what comes with the machine, rather than what you can download.
The Android platform is fast becoming for handheld devices everything that Windows has been for the desktop–a cheap operating system that vendors adapt as necessary. Precisely because Android is available to a multitude of companies and being used on a multitude of hardware platforms, it may never offer the high-quality experience that users have come to expect from Apple’s iPads, iPhones, and iPods.
Many companies, such as Dell, HP, and Microsoft, have looked longingly at Apple’s iPad sales figures and burned the midnight oil to deliver their own tablet computers with a similar form factor. But these devices will have a hard time getting traction. There’s more to an iPad than just the hardware and software–Apple is also selling iTunes, the iTunes store, the App Store, and tens of thousands of highly experienced app developers. In the iPhone/iPad/iPod universe, there is a single, easy-to-use way to find, buy, and download music. Such clarity is unlikely to ever come to the Android platform, though, because different companies that are using Android have their own preexisting music strategies–many of them in conflict with one another. When you buy a new iPad or iPhone, you know that it’s running Apple’s most up-to-date operating system. Apple has also made it easy for iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch users to keep their system software up-to-date. Go into a cell phone store today and you’ll see new devices running a range of Android systems from 1.6 to 2.2. Buy a device running Android 1.6 or 2.1 and you have no idea when–or if–the software will be updated.
I can’t recommend the FlatPad–there are just too many problems. But I increasingly suspect that other planned iPad competitors won’t be able to replicate Apple’s success, either. The iPad isn’t simply an integrated hardware/software. Its premium hardware–a really great screen, the world’s best touch pad, premium sound–all leveraging an integrated software platform and Web store that Apple has spent years refining. Android tablets don’t just have Apple’s head start to overcome. They also have to overcome structural problems with the Android platform that Apple’s integrated approach avoids.