Tablet PCs for nearly a decade ran almost exclusively with a Windows operating system. Enterprising users could install various forms of Linux and occasionally a third party would try their hand at the platform, but Windows was the only mass market option. That all changed in 2010 when Apple strolled along and changed how we think about the tablet PC environment and what we should expect from an operating system.
Shortly after, Android started appearing on tablets like the Galaxy Tab and we are on the cusp of the newest iteration of Android in the form of Honeycomb, developed specifically for tablet computers. What was once a one horse race with half a dozen spectators is now a sprint being televised around the globe.
Despite the newcomers, Windows is still a big time player in the operating system wars. And Windows 7 isn’t a bad interface. It provides all the functionality of your PC in a mobile format, the Touch Interface Panel (TIP) is great for handwriting input, and support for multiple languages on the fly is great for those who travel. The biggest problem with Windows 7 on a tablet, unfortunately, is that we’ve all seen and used iOS and Android. They are faster and to the point and utilize a brilliant App model that allows small time developers to solve consumer problems with inexpensive software.
I have long preferred Windows on a tablet and continue to use it. That may change in the months to come, especially if Microsoft continues to ignore how and why people use tablet computers.
The first handful of tablets to run Android was good but not mind blowing. If you ignore the devices that were obvious attempts to cash in on a new trend, hardware on tablets like the Galaxy Tab was solid and the custom build of Android 2.2 used by Samsung worked very well, if not ideally. It was a good alternative to the iPad for many consumers.
However, with Android 3.0 just around the corner (the Xoom release date is likely only two weeks away), we have an entirely new wave of devices to get excited about. With more advanced Widgets on the home screen, more intuitive integration of Google Apps, SD storage support, a new graphics engine for high end gaming, native video chat and much more, Honeycomb is a tablet-specific OS that offers quite a few advantages over Apple’s tablet system.
Finally there is the beast that started the tablet renaissance – Apple’s iOS. Developed for the iPhone and refined for the iPad, iOS may not be everyone’s favourite but it is everywhere. There are some very real drawbacks in iOS of course. Users must tether to iTunes for updates and backups, there is no Flash support in the web browser and once you choose an iPad, there are no other devices compatible with your iTunes and App Store purchases.
But, despite its drawbacks, iOS is the most intuitive system on the market right now. Anyone can pick up and use an iPad and with a developer community that has produced more than 400,000 apps (60,000+ of which provide native iPad support), you can do a lot with the device.
The Other Guys
Apple, Microsoft and Google will likely dominate this conversation for some time to come, but that doesn’t mean there are not alternatives on the horizon. RIM is preparing to release the Playbook with a brand new OS courtesy of in-house developers QNX. MeeGo is still slated to premiere on a number of tablets in 2011 as an open source system courtesy of Intel, Novell, Nokia, and Linux. Even HP is working on a tablet edition of their WebOS.
It’s been a long time since we’ve seen so many companies so eager to jump into a new market like this and it’s fun to watch. Hopefully at the end of it all, consumers win out with OS options that provide the best and most flexible set of tools. At Mobile World Congress (MWC) next week we will see the reality of iOS competitors come to life and with this the ecosystem will begin to breath. Ultimately these won’t be virtual ecosystems but real environments with players willing to take your credit card details, have you interact, upload, download and share as you please. Now your choice will revolve around which Tablet and which ecosystem to plug it into – often this choice will not be an easy one. Don’t forget I’m here to help.