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iPad Killers?

by Phil King

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 out…

This article originally appeared in issue 92 of Linux User & Developer magazine.iPad Killers? Subscribe and save more than 30% and receive our exclusive money back guarantee – click here to find out more.

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.

iPad Killers?

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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    • Bob

      The biggest advantage of the iPad compared to the Android Tablets is that I can buy one right now… Everyone is talking about the fabulous thing the Android Tablets will be able to do, but where are they? Don’t get me wrong, I love the Android Platform. I have an HTC Legend phone in my pocket and I love it. I want an Android Tablet but I just can’t find one right now.

    • Knut

      You can buy 7″ Android tablets right now for $80 to $120 at Alibaba – no queue. They also come in a number of flavours, with and without webcam, memory plug-in.

      There are more expensive models – up to $200 and on, with screen size up to 17″

      More? – Yes some also come with Ubuntu installed to get around the screen size issue. There is more going on in Asia than in the US, since the tablet opens for advanced input methods on the screen. In Europe, you can buy a mobile for the USB port, and chuck this in, and obtain full functionality, also for voice / mobile calls.

    • Knut

      Forgot: The Nokia N900 runs Moebius, that is Linux. The same applies to their 880 and 770 devices that links up to WLAN directly, but uses your mobile phone as a 3G74G “access point” using Bluetooth outside WLAN hotspots.

      Nokia has looked at Linux several times, their Moebius is a variant with the mobile phone part similar to the the Symbian core. Application wise, it is just to download Gname and Qt compatible applications.

      The N900 uses standard Firefox browser and Thunderbird email. All Nokia Smartphones have supported flash the last 15 years. But they were not invented in California, so the Americans and their media did not notice them.

    • Pingback: Android Tablets – a developer’s view | Linux User()

    • Pingback: Huawei S7 Android tablet review | Linux User()

    • Jim Jensen

      The Samsung Galaxy Tab: a US purchaser’s experience–

      The Galaxy Tab gets high technical marks, and its size allows slipping it into large pockets. An accessory is available that allows it to be front-mounted in a vehicle and used as a replacement for dedicated GPS devices, which have comparatively small screens.

      That said, for the US market Samsung has loaded the device with a lot of non-removable adware/bloatware/crapware, and Verizon (perhaps the dominant wireless carrier in the US) has added its own. Further, its voice call capability is not supported here, unlike in Europe and, I believe, Canada. The carriers here want you to continue buying a separate cell phone and its connectivity contract (plus a special data rate if you’re using a “smartphone”), as well as a tablet and its data contract. For two “dumb” cell phones plus the Tab, I’m paying over $100 per month–Verizon’s minimum available rate for these devices.

      Moreover, Android 2.2 has a critical flaw in its email function that can result in lost incoming messages when one’s email account is on an ISP. With the stock Android email client, messages arrive, may be viewed in the Inbox, and then after a few seconds disappear before one’s eyes without any action taken by the user. In some cases the messages disappear before the user can view them in the Inbox, giving the impression of “phantom email notifications”. With K-9 (a popular alternative client from the Android Market), messages already existing in the Inbox are deleted and replaced by new messages, if any, each time K-9 polls for new messages. It appears that the only workaround is to use some form of webmail.

      Verizon is aware of the email problem, but continues selling Galaxy Tabs without any forewarning to buyers. Verizon does not warrant that the device will perform as advertised, but will allow return and refund only during the first 14 days from purchase. If it takes one longer than that to discover that some behavioral problem is not the owner’s fault–but rather a flaw in Android–there is no refund available.

      The Verizon and Samsung’s tech support disclaim any responsibility for the Tab’s software. In the US, each carrier is delivered a custom version of Android, resulting in fragmentation and difficulty and delays in distributing Android upgrades. There is no mechanism for distributing Android bug fixes between major releases.

      The Galaxy Tab was given high marks in a review inside the most recent LinuxUser & Developer available in the US. Unfortunately, the review gives no indication of what owning one would actually be like. In summary:

      1) There is a ton of non-removable crapware (Thinkfree is actually shown in your pic of the GT).
      2) There is a critical email flaw in Android 2.2.
      3) There is no warranty from Verizon that the device will perform as advertised.
      4) There is no technical support from either Verizon or Samsung for Android bugs.
      5) There is no refund for a flawed Android distro if it takes one longer than 14 days to discover it.
      6) There are no Android bug fix updates between major releases.
      7) Android updates are delayed due to disparate versions of Android created for manufacturers.
      8) The manufacturers/carriers have disabled voice calling in the US market.
      9) It is my understanding that ATT have disabled software side-loading.

      At this point in time, I would not recommend purchasing any Android device in the US–especially one from a carrier such as Verizon or ATT. As with any major piece of software, Android is buggy and will remain so release after release. Without meaningful technical support and responsive bug fixes, Android is deficient for use in consumer products, in my opinion.

      LinuxUser & Developer would serve its readers better by going beyond a purely technical review of tablets, and acquainting users with what they may expect in tablets’ real-world use.