The iPad challengers: A status report

Android, WebOS, QNX, Windows--so many operating systems were supposed to have a decent shot at competing with the iPad. How have they fared so far? Not so hot.

At first, it must have looked so easy. Within nanoseconds of Steve Jobs' January 2010 unveiling of the iPad, a gaggle of companies decided to get into the tablet business.

Some decided to design their own operating systems; others chose to license software. Even if they were realistic enough to understand that the odds of outselling the iPad were low, I'll bet all these companies thought there'd be enough of a tablet market to make lots of manufacturers happy.

Instead, the first 1.75 years of the iPad era haven't seen a single non-Apple tablet that's clearly been a solid hit. There have, however, been some high-profile abject failures.

Given that the topic of this blog is new challenges to established successes, I thought it would be worth taking a look at the major mobile operating systems that compete with Apple's iOS as seen on the iPad--where they've been so far and where they may be going.

(Warning: most of this is not pretty.)

Google Android

Motorola Xoom

Theoretical strengths: Android Honeycomb is a tablet-friendly version of an operating system that's already a roaring success on smartphones; it runs existing Android apps as well as ones written specifically for it; it's an open platform that's been embraced by the majority of newcomers to the tablet market; it has (as far as I'm concerned, anyhow) a reasonably pleasing user interface.

How's it done so far? Google has gotten off to a shakier start in the tablet business than most of us expected. It was obvious that Motorola's Xoom, the first big signature Honeycomb tablet, had been pushed out hastily--it was buggy, it had a MicroSD slot that didn't work, and it came with a raincheck for its 4G wireless capability. Months later, Honeycomb apps remain in surprisingly short supply. Newer Honeycomb tablets such as Samsung's Galaxy Tab 10.1 are an improvement on the Xoom, but it's still hard to come up with a compelling answer to the question: "Why should somebody buy this instead of an iPad?"

What's next for Android? At this point, Honeycomb isn't going to threaten the iPad--in fact, it's nearing retirement. Ice Cream Sandwich, its successor, will apparently show up in October or November . We don't know much about it yet, but we do know one thing: it'll compete against Apple's iOS 5, an ambitious upgrade for the iPad and iPhone that appears to be nearly ready to ship. So it better be good.

Chances it'll eventually become a serious iPad challenger: Still reasonably strong--but only if prices come down and Google does everything in its power to beef up the quantity and quality of Android tablet apps. Let's give it another year, OK?

HP WebOS

HP TouchPad

Theoretical strengths: This software been widely praised for its good looks and clever features; Hewlett-Packard said it was going to put it on everything from multiple tablets to phones to printers to PCs , would bring unmatched scale and lots of patience to the task, and would make the TouchPad "No. 1 plus ."

How's it done so far? Oh, you had to ask. I still feel like we'll never know how the TouchPad could have fared. When HP released it in July, it felt not-quite-finished, received middling reviews, and sold poorly. And then HP pulled the plug on it, and all other WebOS hardware, after six crummy weeks. The zombie tablets known as $99 TouchPads merely drag out the sad fate of a once-promising platform.

What's next for WebOS? HP is reportedly laying off hundreds of people responsible for its WebOS products and says it's "exploring ways to leverage WebOS software." I assume that translates into "We're hoping somebody will buy it, for the patents, at least." Still, WebOS isn't officially dead, and HP has even said that the software is going to be fine. Having had my heart broken by it twice so far--at Palm, then at HP--I prefer to maintain an emotional distance.

Chances it'll eventually become a serious iPad challenger: Higher than nonexistent, I suppose. But if HP lacked the will to make WebOS a success after plunking down $1.2 billion for Palm, who's a stronger contender to do right by this OS?

RIM QNX

RIM BlackBerry PlayBook

Theoretical strengths: QNX is a venerable, industrial-strength platform well-suited to mobile computing; RIM's BlackBerry PlayBook had impressive specs and demoed well; RIM, the inventor of the BlackBerry, knows a heck of a lot about making IT departments in big companies happy.

How's it done so far? It's as if RIM and HP had a secret pact to race each other to the bottom of the barrel. In April RIM released a remarkably buggy PlayBook that was missing the single most iconic BlackBerry feature: great built-in e-mail. Every time I saw a pricey TV commercial touting the PlayBook as the first "professional-grade tablet," I winced. Business buyers apparently stayed away in droves .

What's next for QNX? Well, RIM is slashing prices and says it'll add e-mail soon. Neither of those moves will instantly turn the PlayBook into an iPad archrival, of course. At best, they'll just keep it from fading away entirely. QNX itself isn't going anywhere--it's also going to be the basis of RIM's next-generation BlackBerry phones. But I think we'll get a sense of the future of QNX tablets at next month's BlackBerry developer conference. Either RIM executives will have news about a seriously new, let's-try-this-again PlayBook (I hope so) or they won't (uh oh).

Chances it'll eventually become a serious iPad challenger: Man! At this point, there's no evidence that RIM knows how to design and ship tablets at all, let alone ones with a shot at being wildly successful. Even so, QNX deserves to be taken seriously; it's RIM, rather than the platform, that failed the first time around.

Microsoft Windows

Windows 8 Tablet

Theoretical strengths: It's the world's most popular operating system.

How's it done so far? At CES 2010, Steve Ballmer managed to announce "Slate PCs" a couple of weeks before Steve Jobs introduced the iPad. But it was a little like John Deere reacting to the success of the Mini Cooper by building a small car with a tractor engine; as he stood onstage, even Ballmer didn't look like he really bought the idea of putting Windows 7 on tablets. Slate PCs, including one hyped by HP, went nowhere.

What's next for Windows? Here's where things get interesting. At Microsoft's Build conference last week, the company introduced Windows 8 to developers. And it's obvious that Microsoft is dead serious about making Windows make sense on tablets: Windows 8 has an all-new user interface called Metro that's designed with touch in mind, and it'll run on the ARM processors that dominate the tablet business. It's the most radically new version of Windows since Windows 1.0. And it's easily the least iPad-like of the major iPad-alternative OSes. (Rather than mimicking iOS, Microsoft figured out the interface for itself.)

Chances it'll eventually become a serious iPad challenger: Still way early to know. Windows 8 won't be out until well into next year, and it's only going to shine if third-party companies come up with some seriously inventive applications and hardware designs. Still, Microsoft is in better shape than many pundits think. The companies that rushed out iPad-like tablets have all fared poorly; by taking its own sweet time to build a tablet platform, and building one that offers a stark contrast with the iPad, Microsoft hasn't hurt itself. If there's no strong No. 2 to the iPad when Windows 8 ships--and unless Android catches fire, there might not be--Ballmer & Co. will have as decent a shot at doing OK as any of the non-Apple competition.

I'm still rooting for some company to come up with a tablet platform that competes as effectively with the iPad as Android phones do against the iPhone. I still think it's going to happen. But if mid-2012 rolls around and Apple's tablet still feels like a Goliath that can safely ignore an army of incompetent Davids, I may have to reassess the situation. In the meantime, I'm interested in hearing your take on tablets, tablet platforms, and the inability of the rest of the industry to get to the place where Apple already is.

 

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