It's no secret that we're expecting an avalanche of announcements about Android tablets at the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week. What may come as a surprise is that the Android tablet news could be quite a letdown because there are some big assumptions and unanswered questions still hanging in the balance.
Lofty expectations often lead to big disappointments, and the expectations for uber-powerful Android tablets is sky high heading into this year's CES. If we don't hear about multiple Android tablets offering dual core processors, a new whiz-bang version of Android featuring a slick tablet interface, and the capability to run on Verizon's new 4G super highway then it's going to be tough not to say, "That's it?"
Unfortunately, there could be a lot of "That's it?" going around after CES, at least in regards to the Android tablets, unless four big questions can be answered. Here's what they are.
1. Will cheap products degrade the brand?
We might hear about a couple high-end Android tablets loaded with eye-popping tech at CES, but we're also very likely to hear about tons of low-end cheapies and many middle-of-the-road tablets with designs and features that emulate what the Apple iPad and Samsung Galaxy Tab offered last year.
The expected Android tablet announcements from the big computer vendors — ASUS, Acer, Lenovo, MSI, etc. — will be almost indistinguishable from each other. They will all likely be vanilla Android tablets coming out in the second quarter of 2011. So, by the time they actually arrive in stores, Apple will have released its 2.0 version of the iPad with a stepped-up experience.
A bunch of low-cost, barely-functional Android tablets from minor vendors combined with mediocre Android tablets that all look alike from the computer makers could drown out the few high-quality tablets from Android heavyweights like Motorola, HTC, and Samsung. That would create the overall perception that Android tablets are just cheap knock-offs of the iPad, and drive down cost expectations even further.
2. How long will be the delay to market?
If you're expecting any of the CES vendors to say that their Android tablets will be available immediately (or even later in January), don't hold your breath. Most of these tablets announced at CES won't be available until the spring. If that seems a little puzzling to you, then you're not alone. After all, we've been hearing about Android tablets since last year's CES. However, most of the tablets that were pre-announced last January got canned once Apple announced the iPad. The companies went back to the drawing board.
And now, the problem isn't really the hardware, it's the software. Android remains a smartphone OS, and Google has been dragging its feet on making a version for tablets. As a result, Android hardware developers haven't been able to adapt their devices for tablets and Android app developers haven't been able to adapt their software for tablets. Samsung was the exception with the Galaxy Tab, but it simply pushed through a 7-inch tablet that mostly functions like an oversized smartphone that's more similar to the iPod Touch than the iPad.
3. Will Honeycomb wave the magic wand?
The Android ecosystem has several challenges that have been bubbling under the surface for months, and have likely contributed to the delay of a tablet version. One of the big ones is the haphazard way that vendors have chosen to use lots of different screen sizes and screen resolutions, which has added extra complexity for app developers since they have to accommodate all of the possibilities.
This problem could multiple significantly with tablets because there will be lots of different screen sizes (5", 7", 9", 10", and maybe even larger) and each one could have variations in resolution. Google could play a stronger role here and provide better standards or at least some guidelines (but remember that Android is open source so OEMs can ultimately do what they want with it).
With the recent release of Android 2.3 ("Gingerbread"), Google opened the door for Android on larger screens, but provided few other enhancements aimed at tablets. The big work that still needs to be done is making the UI much more friendly for a tablet experience. Don't forget that even though the iPad looks like a big iPod Touch, Apple had to make a bunch of UI modifications to make it a usable experience on the larger screen. And, despite all the work Apple put into it, there are still a lot of things that need to be improved so that the iPad works more effectively with different types of Web pages and apps, and especially for creating content.
Google hasn't done any of that work yet — or at least we haven't seen it publicly. The promise is that the next version of Android, codenamed "Honeycomb," will deliver a coherent tablet experience for Android. The problem is that Google is just at the beginning of the journey. Can it deliver an impressive 1.0 tablet edition of Android? The company's track record is not very good with 1.0 (what it calls "beta") products.
4. Will Google finally get off the fence?
In the midst of the rampant speculation and fevered expectations about Android tablets and Honeycomb in the final months of 2010, Google simultaneously launched the Chrome OS and its first product, the Cr-48 Chrome notebook. Google's executive leadership spent 2010 grappling with how Android and Chrome OS fit together. The original idea was that Android was for phones and Chrome OS was for PCs (the latest attempt at the mythical "network computer").
However, which OS should Google use to run tablets? Google appears to have been leaning toward Chrome OS. But, with Apple's iPad selling better than expected using the same OS as the iPhone and users showing an insatiable appetite for tablet apps, the rest of the Google Android ecosystem voted for Android tablets. Google slowly acquiesced. By the end of year, Google CEO Eric Schmidt stated that Chrome OS was for systems with hardware keyboards and Android was for multi-touch devices.
Google's enthusiasm for Chrome OS was palpable at the launch of the Cr-48. Even though many in the technology industry have called for Google to abandon Chrome OS and throw all of its focus and resources behind the Android juggernaut, Google has continued to forge ahead and wave the flag for Chrome OS. This shouldn't surprise anyone.
Google is heavily invested in keeping the current paradigm of the Web, where it is by far the biggest money-maker. While most content companies and software developers struggle to make the kind of money on the Web that they did with their previous business models, Google continues to rake in billions with its AdWords and AdSense programs. On today's Web, Google is the home team. Chrome OS would only strengthen that position, while Apple iOS and Android threaten it by moving eyeballs from Web pages to apps, with a much more focused and granular experience (and little to no room for AdWords and AdSense).
That's why I'm still skeptical about how committed Google is to tablets. The company doesn't not want to send even more Web users away from laptops and PCs and on to tablets where they will often use apps to access their favorite Web content rather than the open Web, which is Google' big cash register. At the same time, average users are gravitating toward tablets as the iPad's surprising sales have shown, and Google can't just allow Apple to run away with the market.
So, the big question becomes whether Google is ready to fully embrace Android tablets and then figure out what they mean for the future of Internet content (and Google revenue). Or, will the company take a fairly hands-off approach and not provide much leadership, which will allow the OEMs to run wild with Android tablets in a hundred different directions that could further splinter and balkanize the Android ecosystem and litter the tablet market with an army of inconsistent and mediocre products.
Jason Hiner has nothing to disclose. He doesn't hold investments in the technology companies he covers.
Jason Hiner is Global Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Global Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about how technology is changing the way we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the book, Follow the Geeks.