Tablets: A Prescription for Confusion

“It appears to be just a handful of credible entrants” said Apple CEO Steve Jobs on iPad rivals, “not exactly an avalanche.” It’s certainly been a shaky few weeks for tablets in general; while Apple’s slate can apparently do little wrong, contributing nicely to another record financial quarter for the Cupertino company, the rest of the market is looking deeply troubled. Qualms over platforms, sizes, pricing and usability have all come to a head over the past seven days, leaving manufacturers looking almost as confused as the would-be consumers.

Jobs laid into Android as a “fragmented” platform and 7-inch displays as “too big to compete with a smartphone, and too small to compete with an iPad.” Nonetheless, Android appears to be the horse on which most Apple rivals are betting. Reviews of the first new batch of Windows 7 slates proved less than positive, with models likethe Tega v2 criticized for shortfalls in usability. While Microsoft’s latest version is certainly stronger than Windows XP Tablet Edition ever was, gauged against finger-centric platforms like iOS and Android it lacks the immediacy and intuitiveness users have come to expect.
In response, we’ve seen a gradual distancing of manufacturers from Windows 7, fleshing out vague rumors of reluctance over Wintel slates reported for the past few months among OEMs. MSI has apparently frozen its Windows 7 tablet development, and Lenovo has dismissed the platform as too tied to the keyboard/mouse paradigm as to be suited to pure slates. The question now is not so much whether Android, but which Android, and that’s a thick vein of confusion which even Google itself seems mired in. “What does it mean when your software supplier says not to use their software in your tablet?” Jobs asked, referring to Google’s apparent guidance to manufacturers to wait until at least the next Gingerbread release of Android for tablet use. The first Gingerbread models are expected to arrive at CES 2011 next January – including the new Android model that MSI is supposedly focusing on in favor of Windows 7 – but other manufacturers are even more wary. Lenovo, while eschewing Microsoft’s OS, has said it intends to wait until Honeycomb, the version of Android beyond Gingerbread, before making its play.
On the flip side, Android 2.2 Froyo models are reaching store shelves now, or are expected to in the next few weeks. Samsung’s Galaxy Tab is perhaps the best known, already on sale in some mainland European markets and hitting the UK on November 1st and the US through that month. As well as being one of the 7-inch models Jobs was so eager to dismiss, the Galaxy Tab has found itself mired in controversy over the apparent premium price Samsung – and its carrier distributors – is charging. In the UK, pre-orders have currently settled at around £530 ($830), the same local price as a 16GB iPad WiFi + 3G; in the US, meanwhile, Verizon has been the only network to announce solid numbers, prompting an outbreak of surprise by asking $599.99 for the unsubsidized slate.
Leaked figures from T-Mobile USA, meanwhile, have previously suggested the GSM carrier will be offering the Galaxy Tab at $399 with a two-year data plan, still an expensive option. It seems a risky strategy on Samsung’s part (though carriers set the final subsidized numbers, they’re obviously dependent on the manufacturer’s RRP and wholesale cost), when many had hoped they would significantly undercut the iPad in an attempt to secure market share (and for what is a significantly smaller device).

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