The tablet landscape by platform, summer 2011 edition

Summary:The race to produce a hot tablet that competes with the iPad has not had a winner yet, and it is worth a look at the tablet tableau by platform to see where things currently fall.

Since the arrival of the iPad on the scene, tablets have been a common topic for discussion. The conversation goes far beyond the tablet from Apple as competitors are busy trying to get a competing product to share the wealth. The race to produce a hot tablet that competes with the iPad has not had a winner yet, and it is worth a look at the tablet tableau by platform to see where things currently fall.

iOS/ iPad

Apple set the tech world on its ear with the release of the original iPad, not only because it was so thin and light, but because it was much cheaper at $499 than anyone was prepared for. This entry level pricing was brilliant in that it virtually guaranteed it would be a success given how good a product it was.

That was followed up this year with the iPad 2, an improved model that quickly sold faster than Apple could produce them. The addition of a rear camera, along with a new form even thinner and lighter than the original kept customers buying the iPad 2 by the millions. Apple's latest figures show it has sold over 9 million iPads, making it clear the iPad has dominated the tablet landscape. The iPad 2 will get even better with the release of iOS 5 later this year which improves the platform for both the iPad and iPhone.

Android Honeycomb

Google's Android OS has only been in existence for a short period but has dominated the smartphone space for a lot of that time. The company's latest figures show that 550,000 Android devices are activated daily, and 130 million of them have been activated to date. The rapid rise of the Android smartphone coupled with the good customer reaction to the iPad led Google to produce Honeycomb, the version of Android designed strictly for tablets.

The first Honeycomb tablet, the Motorola XOOM, was released early this year to mixed reviews. Honeycomb 3.0 was buggy and didn't do Google any favors for the platform. Since the shaky release, two updates have been produced addressing the majority of Honeycomb's problems. The first of these updates Honeycomb 3.1 is now shipping on a lot of the Android tablets available currently. Honeycomb 3.2 is rumored to be even more stable than 3.1, but it is not yet available on many of the shipping tablets.

This fragmentation issue that has plagued Android on the smartphone side is already a factor on the tablet side. Buyers of Android Honeycomb tablets have no guarantee that updates will be released by the OEM and the carrier (for those tablets sold by them). This situation means prospective buyers shopping for a Honeycomb tablet are often unclear on which version of the OS a particular model is shipping with. This is significant on Android tablets given how bad Honeycomb was at release (3.0) and the uncertain nature of Android updates. If you buy a tablet shipping with version 3.1 of Honeycomb, you have no guarantee of getting the already released 3.2 which further fixes bugs.

In addition to having the very buggy Honeycomb 3.0, the Motorola XOOM was rushed to market with hardware components that didn't work, and big promises that the model sold by Verizon would receive an LTE upgrade shortly. XOOM owners are still waiting the availability of that LTE upgrade, and are understandably upset that the just released Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 will be available for purchase in just a few days with LTE integration. Early adopters (XOOM buyers) will not get the first Honeycomb tablet capable of blazing LTE speeds.

Samsung has become one of the top sellers of Android phones, and it jumped on the tablet space with the original Galaxy Tab last year. The new Galaxy Tab 10.1 is the thinnest and lightest 10-inch tablet in existence, having beaten the iPad in these key areas.

Other OEMs have been releasing Honeycomb tablets, with models by ASUS and Acer among those currently shipping. There are innovative offerings like the Transformer by ASUS which has a keyboard dock available that turns the tablet into a netbook alternative. The rash of tablets becoming available make this a mobile segment to watch, as companies are fighting with different hardware components and price. If prices drop low enough Android tablets may start selling in numbers worth tracking.

PC giant Lenovo is preparing to enter the Honeycomb tablet race with a couple of models. One of those is a ThinkPad Tablet aimed at professional workers, and it has features not found on existing tablets. The ThinkPad will bring a pen to the slate, allowing full interaction with the screen by pen along with handwriting on the screen that is converted to text as desired.

Also see: 5 tablets for back to school

There is no clear indication how many Android tablets are selling nor how many have sold to date, but it is almost certain far fewer are selling than iPads. Those of us keeping an eye out for tablets in public rarely see an Android tablet in use, but iPads are literally everywhere. Android is the number one competitor to the iPad, so we need to see these things start appearing in public to prove they are moving in significant numbers. Google's own figures aren't telling a compelling story for Honeycomb tablets.

BlackBerry PlayBook

Beleaguered BlackBerry maker RIM was counting on the PlayBook tablet released early this year to help turn the company around.  Even though the hardware on the PlayBook was viewed as quite good, reviewers of the tablet were surprised to find that core tablet capabilities were missing. Releasing the PlayBook without native email, contact management and calendar functions, all features the BlackBerry smartphone has been famous for, was viewed as a major faux pas by RIM.

Sales of the 7-inch PlayBook have been so poor that RIM is rumored to have cancelled work on the 10-inch PlayBook that was expected later this year. The company's recent announcement of layoffs and executive shuffling don't paint a good picture for the PlayBook's future.

HP webOS (TouchPad)

HP paid $1.2 billion to acquire Palm to get possession of the webOS platform. The recently released TouchPad is the first webOS tablet produced out of that acquisition, and while it shows promise the shaky release hasn't done HP any favors.

Reviews of the TouchPad were uniformly bad at release, due to bugs and performance issues. HP immediately responded that an update was already being prepared to address those issues, and it is expected in just a few days. Inside information tells us this does address the performance of the TouchPad, along with adding some new features.

The TouchPad with webOS is a compelling tablet due to the ability of HP to do something with the product. The company is throwing a lot of engineering and resources into both webOS and the TouchPad, and the potential is there for a good run at the iPad. The combination of technical ability, production capabilities and large distribution system make the HP TouchPad a product line to watch.

HP is going to produce a second TouchPad, a 7-inch version, later this year. The webOS platform as it has evolved on the tablet is a nice alternative to the iPad and Android, and with HP's backing has a decent shot at getting into the enterprise.

Related:

Topics: Tablets, Hardware, Laptops, Mobility

About

James Kendrick has been using mobile devices since they weighed 30 pounds, and has been sharing his insights on mobile technology for almost that long. Prior to joining ZDNet, James was the Founding Editor of jkOnTheRun, a CNET Top 100 Tech Blog that was acquired by GigaOM in 2008 and is now part of that prestigious tech network. James' w... Full Bio

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