Some blogger out there is going to eventually compare Google's Honeycomb operating system to Microsoft Vista. The author who does this, should be held down and beat with tube socks loaded with bars of soap by a platoon of angry Marines. Still, after a couple of weeks with the Android tablet operating system, I can understand why someone might let his mind go in this direction. Honeycomb is a major step forward for the Android platform, and a unique approach to bringing an enhanced mobile OS to the tablet market. But in several ways, it falls short of its aspirations.
The potential of Honeycomb may be more readily apparent on the ASUS Eee Pad TF101 transformer than on other tablet devices. The unique focus on a tablet that docks to become a netbook productivity device illustrates the potential of Honeycomb to not just be a bridge, but a replacement lightweight, portable personal computer OS for content consumption and creation. This potential strength is also where Honeycomb falls down.
Let's be clear and get right to the point: in this transitional role between media device and personal PC, Honeycomb is superior to Apple iOS or stock Android. Where it fails is where it falls short of a traditional OS like Windows, OS X or Linux. The problem is not that Honeycomb is a worse OS than iOS or Android 2.x - it is a far more powerful and flexible OS platform than either. It is in the realization that despite how much more full-featured Honeycomb is than other mobile device OS platforms, it still can't match the features of a traditional operating system.
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Streaming event example
This was recently illustrated for me when I tried to watch the streaming live event for the "Awesome" Facebook announcement. A big promise of Android in general, and one that should resonate with Android tablet users in particular, is that Android delivers a richer, fuller browsing experience more like what desktop users expect. In fact, this is the case, and has been one of my great pleasures in moving from an iPad to the ASUS TF101.
I hope Steve Jobs gets the memo - Flash on my Android tablet does not destroy the battery life. The only thing it does in my experience is make the web work closer to the way I've become accustomed to on a full featured desktop OS.
Anyhow, the Facebook/Skype announcement event was streaming video. I don't know a lot about how Livestream, which was used for this event, works, but I tried to access the stream via my TF101. Trying to access the event page at http://www.facebook.com/facebooklive was a mess.
My first attempt in the Android browser brought the mobile version of the page up - which did not render the embedded stream. As a solution, I turned to Firefox. When clicking on the stream, it brought up the option to play the video in either the default video player or RockPlayer Lite. I tried Rock Player Lite, knowing it is a very robust media player that handles most formats thrown at it. It displayed the video, but it was choppy and the audio stuttered.
I exited, went back, and tried the default video player - which failed to ever begin to stream. Irritated, I pulled out my Lenovo S10 netbook, which I fortunately had with me, and booted into Win 7 Professional. I am sure I could have loaded JoliOS and used Chrome as well, as it is a dual boot machine. In any case, once loaded, I opened up Internet Explorer, typed in the URL, and the stream worked as expected.
It was only later, after the event, when the significance of my experience sunk in. I realized that my goal of having a lightweight, portable, convertible tablet that could easily stand in for the duties of a small netbook had met with a significant setback. The truth of the situation was that I came away from this experience thinking that the best solution was that I should carry my Netbook with me as well as my Eee Pad.
The irony therein becomes, why bother with the convertible "NetPad" at all if I was going to be forced to also bring a Netbook along as well. Where was the savings in convenience and portability that comes with not having to lug along a backpack full of machines? This was a disappointing revelation and a serious step backwards in my goal of having a single convergence device that bridged the gap between a content consumption and a content creation device. Heck, in this case, the NetPad option wasn't even meeting my goals for content consumption.
Later I went back to the FacebookLive page where the event is still embedded to stream on my ASUS and played around some more in the default Android browser. This time, in less of a hurry, I went into the settings\advanced\User agent string setting and selected "Desktop" instead of the default Tablet or alternate "Mobile-phone" setting. This worked much better, bringing up the video embedded in the browser and playing video back acceptably smooth. There was some stuttering, but it worked well enough that I would have been satisfied with the experience. Unfortunately, there were still some challenges.
The experience was not a consumer-grade experience suitable to a typical tablet user. Starting the video needed some manual intervention, a bit of a jump-start, to get it going. Just hitting the "Play" button wasn't enough; I had to adjust the slider to get the video to start rolling. The process of going into settings to change the browser ID from a mobile to a desktop page-render is something that - well, just trying to write the explanation of this process is convoluted. Inevitably some Android apologist will claim, "it isn't that hard, it just requires a little bit of technical skill". That is where Android will lose to iOS in a consumer-oriented mobile device market.
Superior but still falling short
Keep in mind, the experience that Honeycomb delivers is superior to any other device of its class. It is simply falling short of the experience one might expect from a class that is arguably above it in performance and features. Subsequent tests had very good results with Live video streaming in the Android browser, including watching a Facebook Town Hall with President Obama that started and streamed nearly perfectly.
I suppose the key learning here is that if you've got a role for your Honeycomb tablet, don't rely on it to be able to deliver the goods on demand, in a crunch. You should do some testing first, be prepared to take some extra steps to massage the machine to deliver the optimal performance. A little extra time spent up front may avoid missing an event or experience later on.
I think the important thing to keep in mind is that Android is a rapidly evolving platform that has ambitions far loftier than the competition. As Android evolves, it becomes ever more suitable as a complete replacement of a traditional notebook for your mobile productivity and content consumption needs. It isn't exactly there yet, but it is very close.
Are you a Honeycomb user? Do you agree or disagree with my observations? Is Honeycomb a suitable replacement for a desktop OS, or is it falling short, or are my expectations too high for an Android device, even one sold on the promise of being a productivity platform? We want to see your comments in the feedback section.
Donovan Colbert has over 16 years of experience in the IT Industry. He's worked in help-desk, enterprise software support, systems administration and engineering, IT management, and is a regular contributor for TechRepublic. Currently, his professional role is as a Linux support engineer for a fast-growing Linux/FOSS consultancy group. You can follow him @dcolbert on Twitter or his personal blog, located at http://donovancolbert.blogspot.com.