Apple CEO Steve Jobs famously (or infamously, depending on your point of view) lashed out against Google Android tablets during his company's October earnings call, denouncing them as incapable of competing with the iPad.
The "painful lesson," Jobs told analysts and media listening to that call, would come when competing tablet makers realized their tablets were too small, "abandoning developers and customers who jumped on the 7-inch bandwagon."
And that was just one salvo. "I have a hard time imagining what those [competing] strategies are," Jobs said, responding to an analyst's question about rival tablets setting to challenge the iPad throughout 2011. "We think Android is very, very fragmented, and becoming more fragmented by the day."
Welcome to Google's counter-fire: Android 3.0, code-named Honeycomb, which the search-engine giant will preview for media Feb. 2 at its 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. Google has also tinkered with the Web browser, which now offers tabbed browsing for multiple Web windows, and support for 3D graphics.
The most important differentiator between Honeycomb and its Android predecessors, though, may be the optimization for apps running on larger screens. Google executives had roundly stated the previous version, Android 2.2, was meant for smartphone-size screens, a fact that didn't seem to stop a variety of manufacturers from porting the software onto their full-size tablets.
Such features, of course, seem designed with an eye toward combating Apple's iOS on its own terms. Certainly, the ability to run apps on a 7-inch or 9-inch screen will boost the potential for Google's Apps Marketplace, which despite an extensive library-hundreds of thousands of apps, and counting-has never adopted the cachet of Apple's App Store.
Honeycomb could 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 large part by improvements related to Honeycomb.
Research firm IDC also expects a rapid acceleration in tablet growth throughout early 2011, powered not only by Android, but also devices such as Research In Motion's Playbook. "New product and service introductions, channel expansion, price competition and experimentation with new-use cases among consumers and enterprises" will all combine to propel the market forward, according to Susan Kevorkian, IDC's research director of mobile-connected devices.
A more robust Android for tablets could also help drive enterprise adoption, particularly if the larger enterprise-software companies-i.e., SAP, Salesforce.com, Oracle, IBM and Microsoft-launch programs to support the platform. Although the iPad has made great strides in the enterprise, thanks to the added features of iOS 4.2 such as wireless printing and greater security, Android-based tablets generally make a strong showing in employee surveys of their most-coveted devices, and a more robust platform could build its appeal among IT administrators and procurers.
In other words, Android seems angling to give the iPad much more of a fight.