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Tablet rivalry: For now, it's Android vs. Apple

Though the future of the nascent tablet market is anyone's guess, this year, the main rivalry is between Apple's iPhone OS and Android, analysts say.

This year's center-stage rivalry in tablet computers is shaping up as Apple versus Android, according to analysts. Windows, meanwhile, remains hobbled by its PC past.

Lenovo's compelling hybrid tablet is expected to appear in some form as an Android device. Lenovo

The rise of the tablet happened almost overnight, after the April release of Apple's iPad, which, as Steve Jobs boasted recently, has been selling at a clip of "one every three seconds." So, the burning question for analysts and consumers alike is, which technology will compete most effectively with that of the iPad, which runs on Apple's iPhone OS?

Answer: Google's Android. Windows may yet power popular tablets, but for now, that seems less certain than Android, analysts say. "Windows is still quite heavy, in terms of its power consumption," Jeff Orr, an analyst at ABI Research, said in reference to its tendency to overtax the minimalist silicon in tablets.

Even Dell, despite having deep roots in Windows, has chosen to come out initially with an Android-based device, the Streak. "Dell is deeply committed to Android," said Ben Bajarin of Creative Strategies. "There will be a lot of experimentation by them, but at this point, they are going full-bore with Android."

A research note this week from analyst Charles King at Pund-IT gushed about the Streak, whose smaller screen size places it somewhere between the larger iPad and a smartphone. The device comes with "3G, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth wireless support, integrated GPS, [and a] 5-[megapixel] camera," along with "integrated Google Maps and turn-by-turn navigation, easy integration of Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube social-media apps, [and] Android app/market access," he wrote. "This is an impressive package by most measures, but what is most notable is that...the Streak is actually a study in iPad contrasts: a significantly smaller display, integrated camera, immediate support for voice calling and eventually for video chat, easily upgradable memory and accessible battery and, last but not least, support for Adobe Flash."

Expectations are high for more Android tablet designs. A version of Lenovo's compelling U1 hybrid tablet/laptop is expected to appear later this year as an Android device. "The Lenovo U1 is interesting," Bajarin said. "It's a hybrid computing model in the short term, while people grasp the differences between touch-based computing and keyboard-and-mouse computing," he said.

Apple iPad has, overnight, created and defined the tablet. Apple

And Android got another shot in the arm this week from the chief executive of Nvidia, Jen-Hsun Huang, who said tablet designs would unite around the Google operating system.

Nvidia's Tegra 250 chip is one of leading candidates to power tablets, according to Bajarin. "We're seeing a lot of Tegra getting built in [to tablets] by manufacturers because of the benchmarks," he said. "Tegra has got so much performance in it that it lends itself more to a tablet than a pure mobile phone," according to Bajarin. Qualcomm's Snapdragon chip, another popular option [think: Google Nexus One], is more suited to smartphones than tablets, Bajarin said.

But tablets are more about the software than the underlying hardware, and Intel's present--and future--strategy doesn't necessarily bode well for Windows. "There's no longer that one-to-one relationship that, if it's Intel, it must be Microsoft," ABI Research's Orr said. Intel is now supporting Android too--what Intel calls it's "port of choice" strategy.

Overall, maybe the simplest way to predict the upcoming tablet software rivalry is by looking at the current high-end smartphone market. Today, iPhone OS and Android smartphones are duking it out for market share leadership.

Orr cautions, however, that despite Android's momentum, ultimately, the jury is still out. "The big asterisk in all of this discussion is that media tablets are still so new, the reality is that very few products have yet to come to market," he said.

Clarification at 11:38 a.m. PDT Wednesday: I misspoke in an earlier version of this post when I stated that Intel would not be very competitive in tablets until the next generation of its "Moorestown" Atom chip. A previous story, in fact, says that Intel's Moorestown Atom chip would not be very competitive in smartphones until the next generation. An Intel spokeswoman clarified that "Intel believes from a tablet perspective we are extremely well positioned today," and cited more than 30 upcoming design wins in the tablet space with Moorestown and Oak Trail technologies.