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iPad Killers?

The success of the Apple iPad has prompted other manufacturers to launch their own tablet devices, mainly based on the Android platform. But can Android have the same impact as it has done in the smartphone market? Phil King examines the market and speaks to analysts and retailers to find

This article originally appeared in issue 92 of Linux User & Developer magazine.

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Not since Moses came down from Mount Sinai has there been such excitement about a tablet. Launched in April, the Apple iPad was an overnight sensation. Anyone would think that it was the first tablet device ever made, but in fact they have been around for ages. Not that most people were aware of them. The first commercially available tablet, the GRiDPad (based on MS-DOS) appeared back in 1989. Other devices followed and by the early 2000s the tablet was being touted as the ‘next big thing’. It didn’t happen then, possibly because the technology of the time wasn’t up to creating the sort of user-friendly internet media tablets envisioned. And so the tablet market continued to be a niche one: before the launch of the iPad, it accounted for a mere one per cent of the personal computer market.

The iPad launch changed all that. All that frenzied media coverage has finally made consumers aware of the tablet form factor. Surveys by Forrester Research showed that by June, 95 per cent of consumers were aware of the iPad. They might not have known they needed, or wanted, a tablet before, but plenty have been buying them.

With over 3.5 million iPads sold to date – Apple CEO Steve Jobs boasting “we’ve sold one every three seconds since we launched it” – and ABI Research forecasting a total of 11 million media tablet shipments in 2010, it’s no wonder that most OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) want a slice of the action. Some may also be fearful of the iPad’s effect on their own netbook sales: a report from DisplaySearch noted, “In the second half of the year, as additional slates are launched, the clamshell-style mini-note PC [netbook] could continue to lose share.”

So it is that most major OEMs – and lots of lesser-known enterprises worldwide – are working on their own tablet devices, mainly based on the Android platform. Barely a week goes by without another one being announced or rumoured, and major OEMs such as Samsung, Toshiba, Archos and ViewSonic used the recent IFA technology show in Berlin to showcase their forthcoming Android tablets. Google itself is rumoured to be working with Motorola on its own branded Android tablet.

Variety is the spice
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer may have previously dismissed them as a “weird collection of Android machines”, but one advantage of Android tablets is the sheer variety of devices that will shortly be available – as is already the case in the smartphone market, in which Android is enjoying a huge surge in market share. Unlike the iPad, Android tablets will come in all sizes, from the 5‑inch Dell Streak smartphone-cum-tablet, right up to the 15.6-inch Vega from T-Mobile.

Ben Bajarin, director of consumer technology practice at Creative Strategies, told Linux User & Developer: “One major advantage I think [Android] will have is variation in hardware, specifically in form factors. Since so many different manufacturers can use Android, it presents the opportunity for a lot of innovation at the hardware level.”

Jack Gold, director of J Gold Associates, concurred: “I think the biggest thing is the diversity [Android tablets] will represent, giving users the ability to choose what features/functions they want.”

Price will also be a key factor. A survey by the Retrevo website saw 53 per cent of respondents citing a lower price when asked ‘What would make you buy an Android-based tablet over an iPad?’.

Jon Love, business development manager at Clove Technology, commented: “The Android tablets should see success through those users who do not want to be restricted by the Apple OS and pay large sums for hardware and technology which can realistically be acquired at prices more sensible and attractive to the average user who would like to benefit from the new technologies and form factor.”

There may not be as much scope to discount devices on a 3G data contract with network operators as in the smartphone market, however. Rhoda Alexander, director of monitor research at iSuppli, told LUD: “Pricing is going to be interesting to watch, especially for those entrants coming from the phone environment, where they are accustomed to working with service contractors to offset some of the device pricing. With the data limitations on most of those service plans, the majority of users are likely to go with a Wi-Fi only solution, as they have with the iPad, meaning the device providers will have to carry their own weight on the device cost.”

Still, there should be Android tablets to suit all pockets, including budget devices – although you tend to get what you pay for, as Victoria Fodale, senior analyst at ABI Research, cautioned: “Attractive pricing will be important, but not if it reduces the performance too greatly (as we saw with the Augen tablet that was offered by Kmart in the US).” Selling for the amazing price of $150, the Augen Gentouch78 7-inch tablet disappointed. Like some other budget tablets, the main drawback was an unresponsive resistive touch screen rather than the finger-friendly capacitive one on the iPad (and most smartphones).

Android devices need to be of much higher quality than that to compete head-to-head with the iPad, and it’s clear that those from the major OEMs will be. For instance, Samsung’s GT-P1000 will feature a 7-inch, 1024×600 capacitive display and a powerful ARM Cortex-A8 1GHz CPU coupled with a PowerVR GPU.

iPad drawbacks
The Android devices can also target some of the iPad’s weaknesses. While the iPad is an impressive piece of kit, it isn’t without its flaws. And the biggest omission, without doubt, is the lack of Flash video support for web browsing – something that isn’t likely to be addressed by Apple, according to Steve Jobs: “Sometimes you have to pick the things that look like the right horses to ride going forward. And Flash looks like a technology that had its day and is waning. And HTML5 looks like the technology that is really on the ascendancy right now.”

It may well be the case that the growth of HTML5, and its built-in video tag, will eventually make Flash largely redundant, but it hasn’t happened yet and a lot of web video still relies on Adobe’s software. This represents a major opportunity for Android tablets to provide the full internet experience that the iPad cannot, since from version 2.2 (Froyo) onwards, the Android OS incorporates native support for Flash 10.1.

Other iPad weaknesses include the lack of expandable memory, whereas most Android tablets will feature a microSD memory card slot. Instead you have to opt for 16, 32 or 64GB of internal storage. There’s no camera either, not even a front-facing webcam for video chat – as featured on the iPhone 4 for FaceTime. There’s no standard micro-USB or USB port for device or data connection, instead sticking to Apple’s proprietary one. Although the battery will last a good ten hours with normal use, it’s non-removable so you can’t carry a spare and if it wears out, you’ll have to visit an Apple store to have it replaced.

Also, 3G and GPS are only available on some iPad models, costing £100 extra. Finally, there’s the lack of portability of a 9.7-inch device; to address this, Apple is rumoured to be working on a smaller 5- or 7-inch iPad for 2011, according to DigiTimes Research senior analyst, Mingchi Kuo.

As well as targeting the iPad’s weaknesses, the Android tablet market should see further innovation in hardware, including a dual-boot device from ViewSonic. Samsung has also patented a double-sided, dual-screen tablet, while Toshiba might well adapt the folding dual-screen design from its Libretto W100 Windows device.

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