Google isn't going to let Apple have the tablet market to itself
Despite the fact that only six months ago, no one really cared about tablet devices, today it seems like consumers would happily trample each other if an iPad was waiting for them at the end of a queue. But it looks like Apple could be facing some pretty stiff competition before too long.
Now that Apple has rekindled, or should that be sparked interest in, the tablet form factor, there's a host of new hardware waiting in the wings.
However, it's not a particular device that will prove to be the biggest threat to the iPad, it's the user interface that's being adopted by many of the forthcoming tablets, and that interface is Google's Android.
If you're wondering why Android is the key to a successful iPad rival, you only have to look back at Apple's previous game changing device, the iPhone.
When the iPhone launched it lacked many features that we would have expected from a high end phone, but that didn't stop it becoming a huge success and gaining unprecedented critical acclaim.
What made the iPhone so special was the user interface and it wasn't until Google launched its Android platform that viable alternatives to the iPhone started to appear.
OK, so it took a little while for truly excellent Android handsets to arrive, but today you're spoilt for choice, with devices like the HTC Legend and HTC Desire trumping the iPhone on many levels. Put simply, Android now provides a user experience that's every bit as good as Apple can muster.
t's also worth remembering that Android is now a mature platform, so it will be far easier for hardware manufacturers to bring polished devices to market in a timely fashion. This means that the iPad is unlikely to enjoy the significant head start that the iPhone got.
Google also seems to understand the cloud better than Apple, with Android devices designed to operate completely over the air, with no need for a traditional wired connection to a PC. And while Apple expects its customers to pay for its Mobile Me cloud service, anyone who uses Google for their email, calendar and contacts will have full access to those services via an Android device for free.
Android is also a far more open platform than anything Apple will ever bring to market. The iPad, like every other Apple device, needs to be connected to iTunes whenever you want to transfer anything to it. With an Android based tablet, by comparison, you can drag and drop files directly to the device, or even copy music/video/files directly from a memory card.
he one area where Apple has Android well and truly beaten is its App Store. Although Android's own Market is growing steadily, it simply can't compare to the volume and variety of apps available for the iPad and iPhone. That said, as more and more Android devices arrive, there will be more call for Android apps and consequently more developers producing them.
You can expect to see a plethora of Android tablets hitting the street in all shapes and sizes over the coming months. This is most definitely a good thing, because whereas the iPad takes a "one size fits all" stance, many may find the 10-inch form factor a bit too large.
Archos was first out of the gates with an Android tablet device in the shape of the Archos 5 Internet Tablet. This is a 5-inch tablet that works brilliantly as a portable media player, especially since it supports more codecs than you could shake a stick at. Archos has recently augmented its Android range with the introduction of the Archos 7 Home Tablet, which is clearly aimed squarely at the prospective iPad buyer.
The first truly compelling Android based tablet has just launched, in the shape of the Dell Streak. However, even though many will see the Streak as a direct competitor to the iPad, it's a very different device.
For a start the Streak is a 5-inch tablet, which makes it far smaller than the iPad, and relatively pocketable as a result. The Streak is also a fully functioning mobile phone, so you could replace your current handset with one, assuming you don't mind holding a 5-inch tablet to your ear.
What the Dell Streak does offer is a great user experience, that's as close as you're going to get to an iPad. With its capacitive, multi-touch screen, the Streak is a joy to use and really does show off Android to good effect.
It's therefore a shame that the Streak has launched with version 1.6 of Android, rather than version 2.1, which has been shipping on smartphones for a while. That said, even the older version of Google's user interface makes for a great experience on a device like this.
he most amazing thing about the Dell Streak is that you can have one for free, as long as you sign up to a contract with O2 – for £35 per month you'll get 600 minutes of voice calls along with unlimited texts and data. By contrast a 16GB 3G iPad will cost you £529, plus at least £10 per month for 3G access. Oh, and you'll still need to have a mobile phone to actually make calls.But the Dell streak is just the tip of the iceberg, especially when you look under the hood and realise that it's running Qualcomm's 1GHz Snapdragon processor, just like the HTC Desire and Google Nexus One. In other words, Dell has created a big smartphone that can still function as such.
What's really exciting is what's on the way, with tech manufacturers racing to get their Android tablets out the door in a hope of profiting from the iPad mania. One company that looks set to be particularly happy is Nvidia, since its Tegra 2 platform is likely to be found in many of the upcoming tablet devices.
MSI has already showed off its WindPad 110, running Android 2.1 on Tegra 2. While Samsung has recently announced the Galaxy Tab, which is a 7-inch tablet device, with an uncanny resemblance to a certain Apple product.
In theory, the Samsung Galaxy Tab should be prove to be a great showcase tablet for Android, but the Korean giant still hasn't managed to create a truly great Android smartphone, so enthusiasm should probably be tempered somewhat.
The device that we can't wait to see is a Google branded Android tablet. Although nothing has been officially announced, there are rumours aplenty about a Google tablet, whether it be in partnership with HTC or US network operator Verizon. Although many rumours suggest that a Google branded tablet could run Google's Chrome OS, Android would make far more sense given its maturity and established app store.
In fact when TechRadar met with Google supremos Larry Page and Eric Schmidt recently, they seemed to agree with our opinion that Android is the better option for a tablet device.
When asked to explain the differentiation between Android and Chrome OS, Schmidt replied: "The division that seems to work is that if you are building a device that's primarily going to be a touch kind of device or a phone type device, Android is just so good at that, right, and the Chrome OS appears to be, and again we're innovating right, so I'm giving you my opinion, appears to be really, really good if you have a keyboard type device, one which is keyboard centric, not really touch centric."
So it seems, as we suspected, that Chrome OS will favour netbook-type devices, while Android is the platform of choice for touch based hardware. That said, it's not as if Google is planning to limit the use of each platform to specific device types, with Larry Page telling TechRadar "we're very excited about people putting Android on whatever they want – toasters, dishwashers – people have it on all sorts of things."
With that in mind, it seems ever more likely that should a Google branded tablet appear, it will be based on the established Android platform, rather than Chrome OS. The big question is whether a Google branded tablet running Android can really put the iPad in the shade. At this stage it's impossible to say for sure, but we wouldn't bet against it.