This week Google announced the availability of Android 3.0 “Honeycomb”, a release of the Linux-based mobile operating system for tablets and larger touch screen devices. It’s a deviation from Android’s core market, but can we expect the smartphone success to be mirrored with tablets?
To answer that question, let’s consider the current tablet market and the operating systems that drive it.
Apple’s iOS may have carved a niche for itself as a tablet operating system, but don’t forget Android is already proving to be a strong competitor.
Hardware manufacturers like Samsung and ViewSonic already have Android tablets based on the 2 series of Android – the one designed for smartphones.
There’s no doubt smartphones and tablets have different interface requirements, but the line between them is blurring. Phones are getting larger and tablets are becoming smaller.
Motorola supports Android on its handsets and has already taken to Honeycomb for its Xoom tablet.
So the demand from device makers is already there and Google making a version of Android designed for tablets can only accelerate its adoption.
The hardware companies can’t use iOS and a MeeGo tablet interface is still nowhere to be seen.
Incidentally, it’s worth mentioning here that Android 3.0 will run on Intel Atom devices providing Intel and Nokia’s MeeGo operating system with more of a stumbling block. As the OEMs rush to compete with the iPad they will be choosing the fast-moving Android. MeeGo will want to come out in a big way this year if it is to gain any foothold in the tablet market.
Honeycomb is a smart marketing move, but Google’s challenge will lie with having to maintain two “editions” of Android without compromising its quality and strengths.
Splitting Android into phone and tablet editions only makes economic sense if the core system and libraries remain controlled under the same source tree.
Google has stated it will maintain application compatibility between the two versions, so the parallel release model looks like a winner from a UI perspective.
In essence, the core Android will remain the same and the UI will be device-specific. In fact, there was already evidence of this strategy when the last handset release was made as Google added the ability to form-factor apps for different screen sizes more easily.
Some commentators say Android’s biggest problem is that it is “fractured” and applications won’t automatically work across handsets from different manufacturers.
To some extent this is true, but I don’t believe it to be so much of a problem for the Android platform ecosystem as a whole. At the very least Android users have some degree of flexibility when it comes to choosing a phone or tablet device.
iOS, on the other hand, will always be wedded to Apple hardware.
With the arrival of Honeycomb the stage is set for a whole new era in mobile computing. And that’s really sweet.