Android 3.0 "Honeycomb," which could accelerate Android's presence in the tablet market, could also complicate Microsoft's Windows tablet plans.
Google Android 3.0, codenamed Honeycomb, could complicate
Microsoft's nascent tablet efforts.
Scheduled for a media unveiling Feb. 2 at Google's Mountain
View, Calif., headquarters, Honeycomb has been designed with larger screens in
mind, including a retooled, tablet-friendly virtual keyboard and a brand-new
system bar along the bottom of the screen. Additional tweaks include the Web
browser, which now offers tabbed browsing for multiple Web windows, and support
for 3D graphics-presumably for gaming purposes, or that small subset of
"Avatar" freaks who cannot bear to leave Pandora.
For Android tablet manufacturers, though, Honeycomb's most
important feature may be its optimization for larger-screen apps. Google
executives have spent the past few months stating flatly that Android 2.2,
despite its growing presence on those tablets, is meant for smartphone-size
screens. Tablet-optimized apps will likely give Android a boost in
competing against Apple's iOS on its own terms
, and perhaps raise the
profile of Google's Android Marketplace, which, despite featuring hundreds of
thousands of apps, trails that of Apple's App Store.
Honeycomb is expected to help accelerate the non-iPad tablet
market in 2011. According to Raymond James analyst Brian Alexander, devices
such as Motorola's Xoom could ship as many as 1 million units in the first
quarter of the year, driven in part by the added features and improvements
baked into Honeycomb.
Increased pickup of Android-based tablets due to Honeycomb
could come at a particularly bad time for Microsoft, which will likely make a
concerted tablet push in 2011 and beyond.
At January's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas,
Microsoft showed off a handful of tablets running Windows 7, but most of those
devices-which feature 10- and 12-inch screens-were intended for the Asian
market. In place of an "iPad killer" or similar device, Microsoft and its
manufacturing partners used CES to push upcoming laptops with ultra-slim
form-factors and tablet-style touch functionality.
Microsoft clearly realizes the need to embrace smaller and
lighter form-factors such as tablets. During CES, the company announced that
the next version of Windows will support SoC (system-on-a-chip) architecture,
in particular ARM-based systems from partners such as Qualcomm, Nvidia and
Texas Instruments. In theory, that would allow Windows to make a play on those
devices powered by ARM chip designs, including tablets.
"Under the hood there's a ton of differences that need to be
worked through," Steven Sinofsky, president of the Windows and Windows Live
Division, told media and analysts assembled for Microsoft's Jan. 5 press
conference to unveil the SoC decision. "Windows has proven remarkably flexible
at this under-the-hood sort of stuff. We work on storage from flash all the way
up to terabytes of storage" and "Windows kernel on alternate architectures."
However Microsoft decides to make its push into tablets,
though, it will have to elbow its way into a market dominated in market- and
mind-share by Apple and Google, with strong alternates in the form of Research
In Motion's PlayBook and (potentially) Hewlett-Packard's webOS.
In December, a survey by research firm ChangeWave suggested
that 14 percent of businesses anticipated a tablet purchase for the first
quarter of 2011. The majority of those corporate buyers indicated they would
purchase the iPad, while significant percentages favored the Dell Streak, RIM's
PlayBook, and Samsung's Galaxy Tab. Some 8 percent had an eye on HP's Slate
500, an 8.9-inch device which runs Windows, but whose limited production run
could be overshadowed once the manufacturer begins gearing up its webOS
On the consumer side of the equation, the iPad continues its
monster sales run, with signs of increased interest in Android-based tablets.
As the rise of smartphones has demonstrated, the longer a
company stays out of a particular segment, the more money and effort it takes
to establish a presence. Microsoft's attempts at an iPhone and Android
smartphone competitor, Windows Phone 7, has yet to attract a substantial
audience despite hundreds of millions of dollars spent on development and
marketing. If Honeycomb increases interest in Android-based tablets, and Apple
improves the iPad with new hardware and software, it could make any of
Microsoft's future designs on a crowded tablet market that much harder to