Android Uncertainty Looms Over iPad Rivals

Tablets on show at CES may be hampered by Google’s unfinished OS.

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.

Video star: Motorola’s Xoom was shown running a video mock up at CES because the final version of Google’s new operating system, dubbed Honeycomb, is unfinished.

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.

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.

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