There are many things that go into a successful device and platform. Stable hardware, OS and applications, having the right applications and the right price, making it easy to buy those applications and having a developer strategy that encourages people to write for your device. This might seem self-evident to most but apparently, not everyone.
In the burgeoning tablet market we are seeing some vendors get this, others working towards it but more worryingly, some who don’t seem to get it at all. To make things worse, we now have five separate platforms with their own OS. This means that there will be some platforms that are very successful while others will appear and then fail or just appeal to a niche market.
The undoubted king of the heap today is Apple. Despite treating their developers appallingly over the last couple of years they benefited from having a hugely successful app store (iTunes) and being the only game in town. Since the launch of the iPad, however, other vendors have dared to step on Apple’s toes. If they are to be successful, they need to learn lessons from Apple and learn them quickly.
Apple didn’t want the iPad to mess with its notebook market so it took the opportunity to create a very light, long battery life device based on its iOS mobile phone operating system. This has turned out to be a clever move and a lot of mainstream software vendors are now porting free versions of their applications onto the iPad making it acceptable in the business world.
Microsoft, not surprisingly, has re-entered the tablet market. It has had a tablet version of its desktop Windows OS since late 2002 and some of its partners, mainly HP and Acer, have regularly released Tablet PCs. It’s latest incarnations are still based on its mainstream OS which of course means that there is a huge number of applications available. We are expecting a new Tablet OS version from Microsoft in 2011 which should be better.
Unlike Apple, Microsoft has decided that using its mainstream OS rather than its Windows Mobile OS is the way to go. This might make engineering easy for Microsoft but having looked closely at a number of the current crop of new tablets, they all struggle to perform adequately. This is partly the size of the underlying code and the processor/memory available on the device but the main problem is in the screen.
Like Apple, Microsoft has experience in building app stores but Microsoft’s mobile app store for the Windows Phone OS is a poor one compared to Apple’s iTunes iPhone store. However, Microsoft is able to call on many more developers than Apple and has set the bar much lower in terms of getting apps onto its stores. Unfortunately, setting the bar low has also impacted the overall quality of many of those apps for Windows Mobile and the mainstream OS’s. What we are waiting to see is if Microsoft is going to create a specific Tablet OS marketplace to rival iTunes.
Another entrant into this market is Google with its Android OS. This is now shipping on netbooks and tablet PCs. Like Apple’s iOS it is lightweight and uses the battery sparingly. Unfortunately the terms and conditions of using Android means that every single vendor has to develop their own app store. This is not just stupid it is a seriously bad business judgement.
By fragmenting the app store experience for customers and forcing them onto vendor specific stores you take away the flexibility of buying any application that has been written for the platform. You also make it hard for developers to get their applications into multiple stores and force them to endure huge extra costs in making money off of the platform.
There is also a huge difference in the implementation of Android on devices. Not just in the bundled applications but the versions and the behaviour, especially the screens. It would behove Google to start laying down some standards and tightening the reference model to avoid this becoming a complete debacle.
With ChromeOS now in beta and due for release next year, Google needs to show both device manufacturers and developers some love and demonstrate that it can be an OS vendor and compete with Apple, Microsoft and Blackberry.The fourth platform here is the BlackBerry PlayBook. Research in Motion (RIM) have taken the page right from the Apple playbook. Single OS between phone and tablet, apps that can be used on all your BlackBerry devices and, more importantly, a single app store and developer environment. BlackBerry has also been able to get many of the business vendors to move their applications over as well to ensure that it is able to compete with Apple in that crucial business sector.
Coming up on the rails are some new Linux based tablets that have started to surface in China and Taiwan. Some of these will go on show at CES 2011 in Las Vegas although the majority will probably not appear until early June at Computex in Taipei.
What we can be sure of with the Linux based tablets is that they will not be vendor locked and users will be able to download from a large number of Linux sites. This is the Microsoft model and relies on users looking around the web to find their applications. It is expected that they primary take-up here will be in education where cost is a factor and where Linux has already done a good job of establishing itself with a wealth of low cost applications.
Apple and BlackBerry seem to be the most focused on building a one-stop shop for their users. Microsoft and the new Linux platforms look like they are just going to treat tablet’s as they currently treat existing platforms with no special effort at all.
Google and those who are building Android tablets need to sit down and sort themselves out. They not only need to address the applications but also the implementation. If they don’t, developers are not going to waste their time debugging applications on multiple versions of hardware and software.