Apple's time nearly alone in the tablet space is set to come to an end quickly. Motorola is preparing to launch an Android-based tablet at the Consumer Electronics Show in early January. The Android-powered Samsung Galaxy Tab has already been on sale for a couple of months. RIM's PlayBook is coming to the market by the end of the first quarter, and HP/Palm are prepping a webOS-based tablet. Microsoft may throw its hat in the ring, too (though who knows in what form).
Just how many tablet platforms can the market support?
Apple's iPad has been a clear hit with consumers and even some businesses. It has sold more than 14 million units. Android appears to be off to a decent start in the tablet space, too. Samsung reported earlier this month that it has already sold more than one million Galaxy Tab tablets. A Motorola Android tablet -- especially one which includes compatibility with Verizon's Long Term Evolution 4G network -- sounds like it will be a success out of the box.
With their head start, Apple and Google have set the tone for what tablets can deliver. This leaves RIM, HP/Palm and Microsoft behind the eight ball a bit, though RIM has been talking tough about its QNX-based PlayBook, which it says outperforms the iPad. PlayBook OS, webOS and whatever Microsoft thinks is worthy of running on tablets has to not only offer the same features that iOS and Android do, but they have to take things further and offer what iOS and Android do not.
RIM believes its compatibility with Adobe's Flash will help set it apart, making it a better web-surfing machine. RIM also says that the PlayBook has been built from the ground up with the enterprise in mind. Does that mean it will become the killer enterprise tablet OS? Hardly. RIM's first-generation hardware and platform will be going head-to-head with Apple's second generation iPad.
We don't know enough about how HP/Palm will adapt webOS from smartphones to work with tablets. webOS certainly has potential in the tablet form, but the operating system from Palm wasn't enough to save its smartphone business. Will it be enough to fend off iOS and Android? It's hard to believe it will.
Microsoft's tablet story is too muddy to make much sense of at the moment.
Leaving Microsoft out of the equation for now, that still leaves four distinctly different tablet operating systems ready to compete for enterprise and consumer dollars. Features beyond the user interface will play a role in enterprise adoption. Compatibility with existing enterprise systems and services will be key -- as will be developer support.
The iPad already has 50,000 applications behind it. Google hasn't shared information about what's going on behind the scene with respect to Android Honeycomb applications. Will they behave differently than traditional Android apps? How many of them exist? RIM has been loud-mouthed about developer support for PlayBook OS, but has showcased few applications outside of the media player and browser. Exactly how will PlayBook OS work with BlackBerry OS and enterprise systems? webOS barely has enough apps available to Palm's smartphones, and the company has not said much about modified apps for a tablet version of webOS.
Apple and Google will likely enjoy a strong start in 2011. RIM, HP/Palm and Microsoft have their work cut out for them if they want to catch up and make their operating systems (and hardware) as relevant as their competitors'.