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 efforts.
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 execute.