Android has taken the smartphone market by storm. In fact, ComScore reported this month that Android's market share is up to 26 percent in the United States, relegating Apple to number 3 at 25 percent (RIM/Blackberry is still in the top spot).
But if there is one market segment that's gearing up to be even hotter than smartphones, it's tablets. This year's CES was overflowing with tablets, and most of the devices were running Android. The upcoming version 3.0 of Android (dubbed Honeycomb) is designed specifically for the tablet form factor. Honeycomb is expected to be released sometime in the first half of 2011.
Smartphone vs. tablet
The line between phone and tablet is becoming blurred. Most of the new LTE phones Verizon announced at CES have 4.3 inch screens, and the Samsung Infuse (a new "4G" phone from AT&T) bumps it up another notch to 4.5 inches. Is the Dell 5 inch Streak a tablet or a phone? The U.K. version has voice calling capability. The so-called international version of the Samsung Galaxy Tab also functions as a phone; it's the U.S. carriers that have crippled the devices to limit them to tablet functionality only.
The business world is just beginning to accept the proliferation of Android-based smartphones on company networks, because there have been issues with security and compatibility. Will the soon-to-be-released tablets that run the next version of Android be better for business users, or will these devices be confined to the consumer space? Given the ongoing consumerization of IT, it's safe to say that regardless of how the devices are marketed, many users who buy Android 3.0 tablets will want to connect them to their work networks.
Honeycomb sweetens the pot
Android 3.0 promises to make the user experience sweeter. For a brief summary of some of Honeycomb's new features and a sneak peek at a video that highlights those features, take a look at this Google Mobile Blog post and read Jason Hiner's article, Google unveils Android 3.0 'Honeycomb' as tablet-only OS.
Let's look at some key features that a tablet needs to have in order to be effectively used in the business environment.
Business users need to be able to create content as well as consume it. To get work done, you often need to type a report or other document, or compose a lengthy email.
The ideal business tablet would allow connection of an external keyboard via both Bluetooth and USB; however, the main advantage of a tablet over a laptop is portability, so carrying around an extra peripheral often isn't a good solution. That means the soft keyboard should be as good as possible. The keyboard shown in the official Honeycomb preview looks to have large, spacious keys.
But will the tablets also support Swype, which currently comes with the Galaxy Tab and many Android phones? No matter how good an on-screen keyboard is, touch typing on one is a big challenge. I've found text entry to be much easier, more accurate, and faster with Swype on the Galaxy Tab than on the large iPad soft keyboard. Lack of support for Swype would make Android 3.0 a step backward for me.Better multitasking
Microsoft stirred up a lot of controversy by not supporting third-party multitasking on Windows Phone 7. The original version of the iPad didn't support multitasking for third-party apps, although this was added with iOS 4.2.
Android has the ability to multitask, but with both the iPad's and Android 2.x's brands of multitasking, all apps still run full-screen. This means that even though two apps might be running simultaneously, you can't view both of them on your screen at the same time. On a small phone display, this may not be desirable, but on the 7 to 10 inch screen of a tablet, it is.
For business users who are accustomed to working with multiple program windows on their PCs or Macs, not being able to do meaningful multitasking can be frustrating. Even on a small screen, you sometimes want to be able to see a couple of apps side-by-side. For me, the most exciting development with Android 3.0 is the progress in this direction: You're able to have multiple smartphone-sized apps displayed next to one another on the tablet screen and interact with them, creating a windows-like environment.
The biggest issue with multitasking (and the reason for Apple's and Microsoft's reticence about supporting it) is the effect on performance. Running too many apps at a time slows everything down and uses up the portable device's battery power quickly. Every Android fan I know manages this problem by downloading and installing a third-party app such as Advanced Task Killer. I'm hoping Honeycomb will come with such a feature built in and that will also include a way to pick and choose which apps you want to allow to run in the background and which you want to kill when you switch away from them.Better email
There has been a great deal of hype about the death of email, and how it has been replaced as a communications medium by social networking tools such as Facebook. For consumers, this may be true to an extent; for most business users, email is still a vitally important means of interacting with colleagues, clients, vendors, customers, and others.
The Android 3.0 Preview shows a redesigned email client that's optimized for the tablet form factor, and that's something business users will appreciate. Something I want to see on the email client is a way to more easily select multiple messages in my Exchange account for deletion. I could do this on my old Windows Mobile phone by simply swyping my finger down the list of messages to highlight them, but it takes far more steps on my Android devices (and on the iPad). You have to go to the menu, select Delete, then touch the checkbox for each individual message, and then select Delete again. This might seem like a small thing, but when you get a lot of mail and need to be able to process it quickly, it matters.Better web browsing
Business users often need to have multiple web pages open. Although you can do this with current tablets, it generally requires going to another page where the open pages are displayed in a stack to select the one you want to view. The browser in Android 3.0, which (not surprisingly) resembles Chrome, was demonstrated on the Motorola XOOM (which is likely to be the first Honeycomb-based tablet to hit the market). The new browser brings the type of tabbed browsing that we're all familiar with from Firefox, Internet Explorer, and Chrome to the tablet. This should speed up web research for business users and make it easier to keep track of which web pages you have open.Better video calling
Some Android tablets, such as the Galaxy Tab, come with front facing cameras for video calling; however, getting it to work can be an exercise in frustration. You can't do video calling over the versions of MSN Messenger or Yahoo Messenger that are available for Android. Qik reportedly comes on the Sprint version of the Galaxy Tab, but I've had no luck with it on the Verizon version. The only way I've been able to do video calling is with Fring, and that works only with someone who also has a Fring account. There is no Fring application for Windows, so I can't make a video call from my Galaxy Tab to someone using a PC or vice versa.
Video calling is becoming more of a standard on smartphones, especially after the release of the iPhone 4 with FaceTime (although currently on the AT&T network, that only works over Wi-Fi, not 3G). It's fun for teenagers and handy for grandparents, but it's also useful for business communications — particularly when you need to communicate something visual (for example, showing someone back at the office how busy a street is when you're out in the field) or in cases where you need to gauge a business colleague's reactions more closely than you can with voice alone (for example, when negotiating a contract).
The Honeycomb Preview shows Android 3.0 running Google Talk with full screen video calling; this could serve as a cost-effective way to conduct one-on-one meetings without travel.More improvements
Other improvements that are coming in Honeycomb, such as the friendlier user interface and the "holographic" pseudo 3D look, will make Android 3.0 a slicker, more attractive OS for business users. Google Maps 5 will allow you to access maps in 3D, which may make it easier to get to those business appointments. And Google's new ebook app will give you another option, both for reading business-related books and for finishing that novel during your lunch break.
The bad news
Current Android tablets, such as the Galaxy Tab, won't be upgradeable to Android 3.0. This is because, to support all those cool new features, Honeycomb requires a dual core processor such as the NVIDIA Tegra 2, as well as a display with at least 720p resolution. The Galaxy Tab has a 1 GHz single core Cortex A8 processor and a WSVGA 1024 x 600 resolution display. The last update for these tablets will be Android 2.3 (Gingerbread), which is expected to be released during the first quarter of this year. This is definitely a disappointment to users like me, who recently spent $600 for the Galaxy Tab. (Find out what Gingerbread is expected to bring to the table for Galaxy Tab users.)
Overall, Honeycomb is good news for users who want to incorporate Android tablets into their work lives. The improvements that I've seen are compelling enough to make me want to buy a Honeycomb-based tablet when the devices are available.
Debra Littlejohn Shinder, MCSE, MVP is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. Deb is a tech editor, developmental editor, and contributor to over 20 additional books on subjects such as the Windows 2000 and Windows 2003 MCSE exams, CompTIA Security+ exam, and TruSecure's ICSA certification.