February 18, 2011

The Curious Myth of the Tablet Operating System

iOS Unifies for Tablets and Phones, While Android Splits and Regroups

Now that Honeycomb (Android 3.0) has been unveiled, native on the Motorola XOOM, and recently announced new Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, Android users are at a proverbial fork in the road - with Froyo and Gingerbread (2.2 and 2.3 respectively) being the shipping mobile OS for handsets and Honeycomb the approved OS for tablets. It's a fork in the development plan that looks like it's temporary, with rumors already out there that the next version of Android, said to be called Ice Cream Sandwich, will unify the two versions, once again giving users a single OS build to choose from. Confused yet? Well, you wouldn't need to be if Google hadn't unfortunately called its 2.2 offering, Froyo, unready and not optimized for the tablet market. In doing so, it set expectations for users and developers of a split in the OS, and gave undue ammunition to rival Apple, who frolicked in the gap when reporting sky-high iPad sales.

Despite Google's warnings that Froyo was not designed with tablets in mind, Samsung sold millions of 7-inch Galaxy Tabs to consumers, while Barnes and Noble set sales records for its NOOKColor, similarly built on the 2.x OS line, and other manufacturers tried their hand at the growing Android tablet market. As a user, I've been very pleased with both the Galaxy Tab and NOOKColor, which feel as natural as a large Android phone, and have significant parallels to the way the iPad felt after years with iPod Touch and iPhone.

From the demos and reports of Honeycomb's new UI, the upgrade looks very impressive. But if major steps were taken with Android to make it a superior tablet experience, then why the plan to unify the tablet and phone experience again - a la iOS?

The Original Galaxy Tab, Running Froyo 2.2

Curiouser still, at least to me, was how Apple was so successful in framing Google's comment on Froyo and tablets at the same time when iOS itself was not necessarily optimized for tablets. At the same time when Froyo 2.2 was the only answer for both phones and tablets, iOS 4.2 was the only answer for both iPhones and iPads. Yet, one strategy was seen as right and the other wrong. Meanwhile, previous to this, iPhones and iPod Touch gained access to iOS 4 while iPad was still on iOS 3.2 - so yes, there was a time when Apple had a phone OS and a tablet OS, which was seen as okay, a temporary issue, and now that they have a universal OS, where the phone looks like the tablet, this too is accepted. Win, win!

As a Galaxy Tab user, running 2.2 on a 7-inch tablet, it's clear there are a few steps Google could have taken to make it more ready for tablets. Amusingly, there are even error messages that refer to it as a phone when you need to charge its battery, as Froyo assumes a phone. But it's a great device, and in my opinion, comparable to the pair of iPads we have in our home, just in a more portable device.

Which leads us to the next discussion... where do phones leave off and tablets begin? Our 32 Gig iPod Touch looks like a tablet. Go a little higher to the Samsung Epic 4G and HTC EVO and we're at a 4-inch screen. The Galaxy is 7 inch, the iPad 9.7 inches... and so on. If it's a flat screen device with a touch interface, is it not a tablet? And should one OS rule both? Seems to me that Android and iOS both do fine at any size, and 2.2 is a great option, even if 3.0 is even better.

Google may have a head of steam behind it now, one that will accelerate when Honeycomb-based tablets are more easily available at lower prices, but I think they could have saved themselves some serious PR headaches if they'd just played the Apple card of what was shipping was good enough.