Tablets Revisited: A Newer Look At The Android Tablet Market

Four months ago, I had a look at the rising ARM-based tablet market, criticising the iPad for its peculiar form factor and expressing interest in the future of Android tablets. Subsequent to that, I’ve decided that I’ll be biting the bullet and taking a plunge into the Android tablet market myself. With this in mind, I mean to take another critical look at the market as it currently stands.

Since December, the tablet market has expanded, with Apple releasing their more powerful, dual-core packing iPad 2, and a host of other manufacturers entering the market with their own offerings. Android-based offerings still seem to have a problem. The products from the big manufacturers, including Samsung, Dell and Motorola, are very costly for the hardware and operating system you’re buying, while less expensive offerings tend to be flawed hardware-wise, with outdated processors or a lack of RAM, or software-wise, with older versions of Android – usually Android 1.6 or 2.1.

At the top end, expensive tablets along the lines of the Motorola Xoom don’t really offer a compelling alternative to the netbook, even considering the interface problems which come with scaling PC operating systems down to a smaller screen. At the low end, the products don’t have the performance or the application framework to compete with their more expensive brethren. I’m still waiting for a proper middle-ground to be established, but there are a few offerings in a moderate price range which have compelled me.

Archos, a French company who have previously specialised in portable media players, seem to have the most compelling mid-range Android offerings. The Archos 43, Archos 70 and Archos 101 have received relatively good reviews from a series of critics, and while they have received some negative criticism for their limited amount of RAM, they do pack a reasonably powerful 1GHz ARM Cortex A8 processor. Of this range of devices, the Archos 70 looks the most compelling to me – the Archos 101 has the same form-factor problems as other 10″ tablets, while the 43 has a resistive rather than capacitative screen, a limitation of a tablet device which doesn’t have a full complement of hardware buttons.

Of course, this represents the mid-range of Android tablets the best out of current devices, but I’m hoping and expecting this market segment to continue to grow as the tablet market grows. Android has forked to accommodate tablets with Honeycomb, and while only a few devices have taken up the new Android version, it demonstrates some degree of seriousness from Google to attack the tablet market as they have the smartphone market.

With Google’s support assured for now, what’s left is for some more manufacturers to get on board with Android in tablets. Samsung and Motorola will be content for now serving the higher end of the market, but competition is going to be required to bring prices down. Not every tablet requires 3G as long as there are adequate Wi-Fi networks around, and not every tablet needs to try to be a larger version of a smartphone. It’s time for a few more companies to explore the ramifications of cheap, powerful, portable computing devices and act upon them.

Nokia’s Folly: What other explanation for using Windows Phone 7?

First of all, yes, I am aware that Nokia announced that it would be using Windows Phone 7 nearer to the start of 2011 than this article. I’ve only just now been able to craft an intelligible response to this very perplexing news.

Secondly, what the hell was Nokia thinking? Actually, I know the answer to that question very well; they had dollar (euro?) signs in their eyes and saw Microsoft as a perfect source of money. What I don’t get, however, is why a company who has had difficulty with competing with high-end smartphones because of their outdated and difficult-to-program operating system would pick up a mobile OS which rivals the original iPhone OS for programming ineptitude.

As supportive as I’ve been of Symbian over the last few years, I can see why Nokia would want to distance itself from it. The potential that it had when it was by far the biggest smartphone OS in the world, as well as one of the few capable of fully comprehensive multitasking, was squandered by not responding adequately to the rise of mobile applications over feature-rich phones. Symbian, as far as I’m aware, is difficult to program for. As well as that, the segmentation of the platform rendered the applications of the past useless, leaving Symbian further behind when it came to mobile applications.

What I don’t see is why they went for Windows Phone 7, rather than something like their home-grown Maemo operating system. Reports indicate that Nokia still does have a team working on MeeGo, an Intel/Nokia collaboration based on Maemo, but hardly with enough vigour to compete with the very active developers at Google or Apple. Windows Phone 7 lacks features such as multitasking and copy-and-paste, both features which the technical community criticised iOS for lacking a couple of years ago (and, I’ll add, which have been present in Symbian when it was still called EPOC). It’s behind Android and iOS when it comes to applications. It’s coming off the back of a series of operating systems which did their job pretty well, but ended their life being heavily criticised.

Maemo, and by extension, MeeGo, is an operating system more akin to desktop Linux, with features to match. Maemo 5, demonstrated on the Nokia N900, had multitasking capability beyond that of any other mobile operating system. It had a variant of Firefox which demonstrated fully-fledged Flash, rather than the cut-down mobile version found in Symbian, Android 2.2+, BlackBerry OS and Windows Mobile 6.x. With a little bit of hacking, one could even operate on the N900, albeit slowly. The user interface was criticised by some, but that was hardly something inherent to the platform.

Where Android applications are programmed using Java, and iOS applications using Objective-C, MeeGo can be programmed directly with C++, allowing a certain amount of portability between MeeGo and desktop Linux applications. This capacity would be perhaps more useful for tablets and ARM-based netbooks than for smartphones, but with the smartphone gaming market supposed to have big potential over the next few years, wouldn’t it make sense to be able to program applications using the same programming language that is used for console, PC and portable gaming platforms, rather than having to recode everything?

I don’t see Windows Phone 7 being much of a benefit to Nokia when it comes to competing in the gaming market with the already game-heavy Android and iOS platforms. While Microsoft might have a reasonably good track record when it comes to games – a successful run of titles and PC gaming peripherals along with the outstanding success of the Xbox 360 do come to mind – they don’t have such a good reputation when it comes to mobile platforms. Perhaps Windows Phone 7 will defy my expectations and be successful – predictions in the technical field can so often turn out to be a mug’s game – but I won’t be investing in Nokia any time soon.