At this week's CTIA conference in Orlando, it seemed like you couldn't walk three feet without encountering another shiny example of the tech industry's hopes for the next bestselling tablet.
Motorola, LG Electronics, Samsung and HTC-alongside their carrier partners-seem intent on flooding the market over the next couple of months with touch-screens running Google Android 3.0 (code-named "Honeycomb," and optimized for the tablet form-factor) and powered by robust hardware. The devices are thin and light, their screen resolutions appropriately high, their support for Adobe Flash and all sorts of nifty applications and features assured by smiling executives.
But can they carve away market share from Apple's iPad 2?
Analysts generally expect Apple to hold the lion's share of the market, despite that rising tide of competition. "We believe our estimate of 5.5 million iPads in the Mar-11 quarter could be conservative," Gene Munster, an analyst for Piper Jaffray, wrote in a March 25 research note. "Never before have we seen lines as long or as persistent as the iPad 2 lines at U.S. Apple stores."
Munster evidently never saw the lines for "Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace," at least before America realized it sucked, but his point is nonetheless reinforced by research firm IDC, which expects Apple to maintain a 70 percent to 80 percent share of the tablet market through 2011.
In their collective bid to push back at that solid competition, these tablets-despite coming from manufacturers and carriers diametrically opposed to one another-seem to share a few common features:
Google Android 3.0
One of the main criticisms leveled against the first generation of Android tablets, such as the Samsung Galaxy tab, was that they relied on a version of Google's operating system built for smartphones. Honeycomb has been optimized for the tablet form-factor, meaning that applications designed for it will run smoothly and clearly on larger screens. Based on the newly released Motorola Xoom, and the tablets on display at CTIA, Honeycomb also offers a set of customizable home-screens that organize the user's applications and data across a tablet's larger screen real estate.
End result? Particularly if its software version stays homogeneous across the device ecosystem, Honeycomb could attract third-party developers to create ever-greater numbers of tablet applications for Android Marketplace. In turn, that will allow Google and its manufacturing partners to offer a solid alternative to Apple's currently dominant App Store.
Despite Android Marketplace's growing library of applications, Google basically offers no competitor to Apple's iTunes. Companies such as Samsung seem intent on making up for that lack with their own entertainment hubs, but those cloud-based storefronts will need to take a page from Apple's easy-to-pay, easy-to-download model if they want to offer a suitable alternative.
T-Mobile will offer the 8.9-inch G-Slate. Motorola's Xoom measures 10.1 inches. Samsung is prepping new Galaxy Tabs in 8.9-inch and 10.1-inch editions. Toshiba also has a plus-sized tablet rolling out.
At CTIA, many of the tablets on display seemed to embrace a larger-is-better paradigm, as if these competing manufacturers had come around to taking Apple CEO Steve Jobs' advice about the 7-inch form-factor being too small for anyone's good. (That being said, other companies still seem devoted to a tablet you can hold in one hand: Samsung will still offer the 7-inch Tab, as will Sprint with this summer's HTC Evo View 4G and Research In Motion's upcoming PlayBook; the latter relying on a proprietary, non-Android operating system.)
By featuring larger screens, these manufacturers seem to indicate their willingness to take Apple's iPad ecosystem head-on. The emergence of Honeycomb could play a substantial role in this newfound courage, but so could...
Bigger screen-sizes and Honeycomb are all well and good, but what truly marks the crop of upcoming tablet competitors is the single-minded intent on top-of-the-line specs, as signified by dual-core processors and higher-megapixel cameras. Within the next few quarters, it seems, having a tablet capable of operating on a 4G network will become, if not ubiquitous, certainly more commonplace.
Some tablet manufacturers are also offering tweaks designed to make their particular wares stand out in an increasingly crowded field. Sprint's HTC Evo View 4G includes an HTC Scribe digital pen, which lets users draw and write on documents and Web pages. T-Mobile's G-Slate includes a rear-facing pair of stereoscopic 5-megapixel cameras that can shoot in 3D. Samsung's larger tablets have been retooled with lightness and thinness in mind.
With all these high-end features, battery life could prove a substantial deciding factor. In the months leading up to its expected April release date, RIM has been actively tweaking the PlayBook's power management to provide what the company's executives term "a full day's work." Presumably, other companies are also looking for ways their tablets can offer shiny features while still challenging the iPad 2's 10-hour battery life.
Adobe Flash Support
When Apple denied Adobe Flash support for its mobile devices, the decision ignited a firestorm of debate within the tech industry. Just as quickly, however, Apple's rivals decided that Adobe Flash support on their own products would serve as an ideal competitive differentiator. Their marketing materials began to tout the benefits of "the full Web," which was basically code for, "We have what Apple doesn't."
As Apple's sales record proves, though, Flash support-or lack thereof-won't sway customers by itself. Nonetheless, other companies continue pushing it as a selling point.
Who Will Win?
The smartphone market suggests that, given enough time, competitors will eventually find their niche within an ecosystem. Both Apple's iPhone and the ever-expanding family of Google Android devices were once new products with relatively little market share. It's very possible-in fact, from certain points of view, almost a certainty-that the iPad will eventually lose share to the point where it no longer has a headlock on the tablet market. But which device(s) will be responsible for that paradigm shift? Nobody knows for sure. But as CTIA demonstrated, there are a lot of manufacturers (and carriers) out there hoping the tablet in their portfolio will be the one to catch on with businesses and consumers.