CES: Tablets aim to challenge Apple's iPad, but what if Android 'Honeycomb' sucks?

Summary:With the Consumer Electronics Show just a few hours away, the parade of tablets aiming to knock Apple's iPad off its perch is lining up. The rub: These tablets will live and die based on the quality of Google's latest release of Android, dubbed Honeycomb.

CES 2011

With the Consumer Electronics Show just a few hours away, the parade of tablets aiming to knock Apple's iPad off its perch is lining up. The rub: These tablets will live and die based on the quality of Google's latest release of Android, dubbed Honeycomb.

Vizio is talking tablets. So is Toshiba.

Motorola will also be out of the gate strong (right). Samsung will show off new tablets. Google is also highlighting Android tablets. And every PC maker that missed the iPad curve will hop on the tablet bandwagon. Most of these challengers will ride shotgun with Android, an operating system that hasn't been optimized for tablets until Honeycomb.

Honeycomb will land soon enough, but the advance billing---Nvidia  CEO Jen-Hsun Huang gushed about the latest Android in November---makes me wary.

In fact, I can't help but ask the following questions:

  • What if Honeycomb sucks? What if this tablet optimization isn't all that special?
  • What if these tablet makers all cast their bets on Android when they should have diversified?
  • What if the hardware/software integration necessary for a real iPad rival just isn't there?
  • Can Google get a tablet-optimized Android OS right on the first attempt?

In many respects, the tablet market is locked into a PC-type scenario. In the PC market, hardware vendors need Microsoft Windows to be a catalyst. If Microsoft delivers a strong OS like Windows 7 things are swell. If Microsoft delivers Vista, life stinks. In the tablet market, we can just swap out Microsoft for Google. If Android tablets are hot, all is well. If not, you have a lot of clunky tablets out there.

Susquehanna Financial analyst Chris Caso summed the importance of Honeycomb up in a research note. "The tablet market in 2011 depends on Google," said Caso. Caso added:

The current version of Android is Gingerbread (2.3) and does not include any features specific to tablets. Tablet features are expected to be included in Honeycomb (believed to be Android 3.0), which is expected roughly in the March timeframe. If Honeycomb is out by March, we would expect Honeycomb tablets to be available in May/June at the earliest. Given the success of the iPad, we believe both Google and OEMs smartly are reluctant to promote half-baked products. Thus, even though we expect to see some Gingerbread-based tablets at CES, we expect production volumes to be very low until Honeycomb is available. Therefore, the availability of Honeycomb will be a key determinant of the non-Apple tablet market size in 2011.

Related: It's tablet time at CES 2011

Now it's quite possible that Honeycomb rocks and these questions are absolutely crazy. However, the downside here is huge if Honeycomb isn't up to snuff. I've been around long enough to at least ponder the downside of betting big on one OS. A weak Honeycomb will mean that CES 2011 will look just like CES 2010. Devices make their debut and never see the light of day. Tablets can be gussied up with new Nvidia chips, but without a strong OS they're going to be quite lonely at the prom.

Here's a quick look at some of the moving parts should these Honeycomb-powered tablets fail to live up to expectations.

  • Apple extends its lead for another year. We're at a critical juncture in the tablet market. It's early in the game, but if serious rivals don't emerge in the next two quarters Apple will win in a blowout. The iPad's pricing is there. The quality is there. The integration is there. And enterprises straddling the fence will lean the iPad's way if alternatives don't emerge soon. Right now businesses are evaluating the iPad, but also waiting for newcomers to emerge. These companies aren't going to hold their enterprise budgets for another year.
  • Hewlett-Packard could be a huge winner. HP is likely to have a Palm WebOS tablet at some point soon. The WebOS seems suited to tablet use and if it works well HP could emerge as a real rival to Apple.
  • Microsoft could seize the day with Windows Phone 7, arguably the company's best shot at the tablet market. Hell will freeze over before Microsoft stops trying to cram Windows 7 onto tablets, but there would be an opportunity there if Honeycomb stumbles.
  • Motorola, LG, Samsung and a bevy of others will have to evaluate other options. In this scenario, HTC could be a winner since it counts both Microsoft and Google as strong partners.

Topics: Hardware, Apple, Google, iPad, Laptops, Mobility, Tablets


Larry Dignan is Editor in Chief of ZDNet and SmartPlanet as well as Editorial Director of ZDNet's sister site TechRepublic. He was most recently Executive Editor of News and Blogs at ZDNet. Prior to that he was executive news editor at eWeek and news editor at Baseline. He also served as the East Coast news editor and finance editor at CN... Full Bio

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