Friday, March 25, 2011

Android Tablets

To give them some credit, Apple's iPad has been a roaring success, and I doubt anyone else would have pulled it off. The "tablet" concept has been around for a while, with Microsoft in particular wasting a lot of time working on the concept, with very few people wanting a tablet that ran Windows, or more specifically a desktop user interface.

Apple's main contributions to the concept were to use what it had learned from the development of the iPhone to put a user interface that was more friendly to the concept of control via a touch screen. Apple also reduced the price somewhat.

Now, sometimes I'm excited by new technologies, and sometimes I'm completely confused as to why someone would want such a thing, and I'm a little baffled when it comes to the iPad's runaway success. It's still expensive, in comparison to a Netbook, and if I can't put it in my pocket, I'd rather have a full computer like a Netbook than a stripped down, keyboardless, device like an iPad, but the reality is I'm in a minority on this one, and people love them.

The success of the iPad has caused numerous parties to want to create their own tablets. The obvious technology to use has been Android, but Google has been unhappy about manufacturers using stock Android for this, and finally released a special, tablet oriented, version of Android a month ago, called Honeycomb.

If you want to play with Honeycomb, you can try downloading the Android SDK, the latest version of which includes the Honeycomb system. The SDK features an emulator, that can be set up to emulate any version of Android. However, it's slow, and the systems that come with the SDK come with only the Android components that are essential. Features like the Android Market are missing, for example.

Honeycomb is an interesting system, it's very slick looking, and if I was in the market for a tablet I'd consider it, but it comes at a cost. For the same reason as Google is unhappy about mobile phone versions of Android appearing on tablets, it's also, reportedly, very unhappy about the possibility of a tablet-optimized version of Android appearing on a mobile phone. I suspect they're concerned, too, that Android might be seen as a cheap alternative to iPad if the first Honeycomb tablets that come out are underpowered and low cost. So unlike prior versions of Android, Google are, for now, keeping the Honeycomb variant of Android proprietary. I have to say this is disappointing, and I hope Google opens Honeycomb soon. I'm certainly not convinced by their argument - I think it's highly unlikely any major phone would be released with an operating system designed for such a large screen, especially if the price for releasing such a thing is to be prevented from having Google's own apps, such as Android Market, available for the device.

So far three Honeycomb tablets, the Motorola Xoom, Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, and T-Mobile G-Slate, have been announced although only the Motorola Xoom is currently available. All three are fairly expensive, with only the Xoom available in an unlocked, unsubsidized, wifi-only version, weighing in at $600. It's fairly clear that those promoting Honeycomb are promoting it as a more advanced system than iPad, rather than a lower cost alternative.

The potential success of Honeycomb is difficult to gauge right now. I'd be the first to admit, as someone who's used various touch screen devices including Nokia's N800, to varying degrees of success, that the concept just isn't appealing to me which makes it difficult for me to weigh the arguments. I read one prominent Apple enthusiast arguing that Apple's "Apple Store" will make a major difference in terms of whether the iPad or Android tablets will be more successful, although I'd be surprised if that's the case. More conventionally, the iPad has mindshare, and the demonstrations of iPad2 have been much talked about, with much of the buzz about things like, for example, its musical instrument app, reminding me somewhat of the buzz about the Wii (except I "got" the Wii buzz!) To that end, Honeycomb's success will depend in large part on whether imaginative developers are willing to get around it, and they may be put off if the only way to get one is to spend $500+ on a device that most of us see as inferior to a $250 Netbook.

And that brings me to, well, me. I feel as a developer I should get such a thing. If nothing else, even if the iPad proves to be more successful, any tablet, Android or iPad, would give me the opportunity to test websites I've produced, etc, for that form factor and user interface. But sometimes I'm excited to try new technologies, and sometimes I resent it, and right now I'm in the latter camp when it comes to tablets. They're an expensive and clumsy way to access the web compared to the alternatives, yet this is being promoted as the future so I have to hop on board, come what may.

Oh well.

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