This year the Consumer Electronics Show, in early January, is shaping up to be the year of the tablet. Yet the most (some would say "only") successful tablet to date is the one that won't be at CES. Apple sold 7.5 million iPads in the first six months and no doubt millions more this holiday season. Its shadow will hangs over the show, forcing a wide range of companies--chipmakers, computer hardware and consumer electronics companies, software developers and wireless carriers--to announce plans for tablets. Here's what I'm expecting to see.
An Android assault Google's mobile operating system has been a hit on smartphones, but even the most recent version, Android 2.3 or Gingerbread, available on the Nexus S, isn't really designed for tablets. As the first to market, Samsung has had some success with the Galaxy Tab, which runs Android 2.2 (aka Froyo), but most reviews have noted that the 7-inch slate feels more like an over-sized smartphone than a true tablet. The first version that will be designed for tablets, known as Honeycomb, will be out sometime in 2011. At the D: Dive Into Mobile conference earlier this month, Google's Andy Rubin surprised the world by demonstrating a Motorola tablet powered by an Nvidia dual-core processor and running Honeycomb. The Android Market seems to have good momentum, but it remains to be seen how Google will distinguish between smartphone and tablet apps once Honeycomb is launched.
Apple designs its own A4 chip for the iPhone and iPad (widely assumed to be manufactured by Samsung), but Android is more of a free for all. All of the same companies designing ARM-based chips for Android smartphones--Samsung, Qualcomm, Texas Instruments, Freescale, Marvell and others--offer processors for tablets. The Galaxy Tab uses a Samsung processor with a 1GHz ARM Cortex A8 core. Other companies such as Broadcom, Nvidia and MediaTek are trying to push their way in as well. There are rumors that Nvidia's Tegra 2, an SoC with 1GHz ARM Cortex-A9 dual-core processor and powerful graphics, is the "reference platform" used by Honeycomb's developers. In addition to Motorola's tablet, Tegra has been linked to future tablets from Acer, Asus, MSI, Samsung and Toshiba. Intel also supports Android, and the company said Asus, Cisco and Lenovo are among the companies building Atom-based Android tablets.
The details on all these tablets remain sketchy. We will almost certainly get the goods at CES, but for now here's what we know. Acer is planning to release 7-inch and 10-inch unnamed Android tablets in April. Similarly Asus will reportedly release both 7- and 10.1-inch Eee Pads--using either Nvidia or Qualcomm chips--running Android in March or April. LG canceled its Android 2.2 Optimus Pad earlier this year and decided to wait for Honeycomb (there have been some leaks about an 8.9-inch tablet using Tegra 2 in the first quarter of 2011). Motorola has posted a CES teaser video for its tablet, which may or may not be dubbed Xoom. MSI is planning to release a 10.1-inch WindPad with some version of Android in early 2011. Samsung hasn't said much on how it will follow-up the Galaxy Tab, but it will no doubt release new versions with Honeycomb, perhaps in March or April. Toshiba's plans are a bit unclear as well. Its early efforts with the Folio 100 did not go well, but there are reports it will be back at CES with several new tablets including a 10.1-inch Android model.
The return of webOS Since acquiring Palm, HP has updated webOS to version 2.0, released a new software developer kit and pushed out the Palm Pre 2. But HP has consistently said it has much bigger plans for webOS including tablets in "early 2011." Though there have been rumors of a PalmPad, code-named Topaz, that looks similar to the HP Slate 500, HP has been tight-lipped on details of its webOS tablet(s). HP isn't exhibiting at CES, but that wouldn't necessarily stop it from demonstrating a tablet elsewhere in Vegas. The webOS operating system has a lot of advanced features including true multi-tasking, but Palm wasn't able to convince developers to build apps for yet another smartphone platform and few people bought Palm Pre or Pixi smartphones. HP will somehow need to solve this problem in order to make webOS a success on tablets and smartphones.
What about Windows? The big news here is that according to Bloomberg Microsoft will announce a version of Windows for ARM-based tablets at CES. This would seem to contradict a lot of what Microsoft has said to date regarding tablets.
Windows 7 includes support for touch input, but Microsoft hasn't done much to customize the interface or develop apps that would work well on tablets. Furthermore the company has said that it would not release an interim version of Windows for tablets, though better tablet support is one of the features on the list for Windows 8. A scaled-up version of the new Windows Phone 7 also seems to be off the table. It is more likely, as ZDNet's Mary-Jo Foley wrote, that Microsoft has come up with a new version of Windows CE--which already runs on ARM chips--for tablets. This tablet version of Windows CE could use something similar to the Metro user interface on Windows Phone 7, which is designed for touch input. This would buy time while Microsoft works on the tablet features for Windows 8, which is likely to be released in late 2012.
In the meantime, there's nothing stopping computer companies from releasing tablets combining Atom and Windows 7. HP released the Slate 500, a Windows 7 slate, earlier this year, but it was targeted at businesses and only available in limited quantities. Next year Intel plans to release an updated Atom platform, known by the code-name Oak Trail, for both tablets and netbooks. Oak Trail should provide better battery life, but it is still unlikely to match the ~10-hour battery life on ARM-based tablets such as the iPad.
A long list of companies including Asus, Dell, Lenovo, MSI and Toshiba are all believed to be working on Oak Trail tablets running Windows. Asus plans to release a 10.1-inch Eee Pad in March. It has also posted a video of its 12-inch EP121 "Eee Slate," an enterprise tablet that will use a Core i5 processor making it, in effect, an ultraportable without a keyboard. (Several companies have tried the 12-inch Windows slate in the past without much luck.) The EP121 should be available in January. An MSI exec recently told Engadget it will have one of the first Oak Trail tablets on the market, a 10.1-inch model. There have been plenty of rumors about Dell, Lenovo and Toshiba tablets of all shapes and sizes, but we'll have to wait until CES to see exactly what they are planning to do with Windows.
What about MeeGo? I've seen plenty of demonstrations of MeeGo going back to Computex in June 2010--and it always looks pretty good--but as Nokia says, "MeeGo is a 2011 event." Until we really see it on real products, it's tough to know how it really stacks up. The offspring of Intel's Moblin and Nokia's Maemo, MeeGo is a Linux-based operating system that was first announced at Mobile World Congress in February 2010. Intel started Moblin several years ago because at the time Microsoft wasn't developing versions of Windows for mobile and embedded devices running Atom, though MeeGo will also run on ARM. In October, the group released MeeGo 1.1 with versions for netbooks, smartphones and IVI ("In-Vehicle Infotainment). The MeeGo project is also working on a version for "connected TVs," but the tablet version is MIA. In October, Intel has launched its AppUp Center, but it is focused primarily on app for Windows XP and Windows 7 netbooks.
Though several smaller companies are building MeeGo tablets (the WeTab with a 1.66GHz Atom N450 shipped in September), the only major company committed to releasing a MeeGo tablet is Acer. At Computex in June 2010, Acer said it would build both tablets and netbooks running MeeGo, but it hasn't said much about it since then. Nokia still plans to use MeeGo in its high-end smartphones starting next year, but so far there's little evidence it will be a serious player in tablets.
So what does it all mean? First, to state the obvious, the tablet market is about to become a lot more crowded. Second, there will be lots of different operating platforms and application stores to choose from. It is tempting to state that a shakeout is on the horizon, but that's wishful thinking. The smartphone market seems to be doing just fine with lots of choices, and there is no reason to think tablets will be any different. Apple will compete with an army of Androids for the consumer market. Whether Windows can depends less on what operating system it is running under the hood, and more on whether Microsoft and its partners can create a good tablet experience. Finally the battle to build the brains behind tablets is only just beginning. The ARM contingent has the upper hand because so far tablets are developing along the lines of large smartphones--not small PCs--and Oak Trail isn't likely change that, but Intel's next 32nm solution could make it a closer race in 2012.