Jan. 6, 2011 at 12:33 PM ET
If tablets are the stars at the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show, then the headliner is Google, whose Android mobile operating system runs most of the devices getting so much attention this week in Las Vegas.
The iPad is still the king, but Apple isn't here — as usual. This gives Google's little green robot command of the spotlight almost by default. Nearly every major computer maker already has an Android tablet or is debuting one (or more) at CES; by the end of the year, Android will have grabbed a third of the tablet market to go along with half the smartphone market, analysts Piper-Jaffray projected this week.
But by mid-year, consumers will have to wade through a half-dozen different Android operating systems on tablets. Those on earlier releases will essentially be stranded — Google orphans left to rely on the cleverness of an already-thriving community of hackers who fill in the holes in Android on their own. Meanwhile, developers must weigh whether it's worth the resources to bring out yet another version of their applications for yet another version of Android.
At least four major "flavors" of Android now hold significant positions in the tablet market: the early-generation Android 1.6, which is still being installed in some new tablets, like the ViewPad 10 from ViewSonic; 2.0 and 2.1, which are on most smartphones and many tablets; and 2.2, or "Froyo," which is on some smartphones and tablets and will be on many devices coming out in the near future.
The reasons are complex: The manufacturers, not Google, determine which OS runs on their smartphones, and once carriers get their hands on them, they like to customize them further to their own specifications.
Carriers have struggled with these bottlenecks as Google rolls out newer, more polished versions. And Google doesn't even officially support Android on any tablets currently on the market, so manufacturers that want to install it do so — with a handful of exceptions, like Samsung's popular Galaxy Tab — mostly without Google's help.
If you succumb to the hype and buy one of those tablets, be aware that it's very possible you won't have basic built-in apps like GMail, Google Maps and the Android Market, where you go to install new apps and fix omissions like that.
It's going to get worse before it gets better. In the pipeline are Android 2.3 ("Gingerbread"), which is beginning to pop up on a handful of the latest smartphones, and 3.0 ("Honeycomb"), the first version that Google's building for tablets. (Andy Rubin, Google's vice president of engineering and one of the original creators of Android, posted the above preview video on Google's YouTube Android developers channel Wednesday.)
Contrast Google's approach with that of Apple. Much of the appeal of the iPhone and the iPad is in their predictability: It's one phone and one tablet, and Apple keeps rigid control of its closed iOS, even deciding for itself what applications you're allowed to install. While this drives advanced users nuts — until only very recently, you couldn't even multitask without jailbreaking the system, installing "forbidden" software and voiding your warranty — it's a big comfort for ordinary consumers, who know their machines will work and that they will all work the same way.
Microsoft is getting in the game, having announced the coming of tablets running Windows 7. If Google is paying attention, it will study Microsoft and learn some lessons. Like Windows, Android is in danger of fragmenting into too many versions, some more powerful and flexible than others — reminiscent of the experience Windows customers have when they try to install software built for Vista or Windows 7 on machines running XP, or vice versa.
Google itself insists that fragmentation is a made-up controversy — "a bogeyman, a red herring, a story you tell to frighten junior developers."
"Stories on 'fragmentation' are dramatic and they drive traffic to pundits' blogs, but they have little to do with reality," Dan Morrill, Google's program manager for compatibility, vented (in a blog post of his own).
Except he's wrong. When Honeycomb comes out, it will run on powerful hardware, like NVIDIA's dual-core Tegra 2, which is inside the Motorola Xoom, the first "official" Honeycomb tablet. How well it runs on the millions of tablets that are already in users' hands we'll never know, as it is highly unlikely that any current tablet would be upgraded to the new OS. And it won't run on any of the phones, either.
And that means that anyone who jumped in and bought an Android tablet will become second-class citizens virtually overnight — they'll be locked into carrier contracts for devices that can't be upgraded, or on the hook for several hundred dollars invested in what they thought was a state-of-the-art tablet that won't offer state-of-the-art performance or options. It's likely they're in for a big, big letdown, and no matter how much Google dismisses the issue as fake, the reality is that it's the Google name attached to Android, even to adaptations it doesn't support.
It's possible this will leave an opening for Microsoft. Because it's been close to dormant in mobile software for several years, its Windows Phone 7 and Windows 7-on-tablet systems will essentially be unified across devices, offering simplicity and predictability to a huge user base that already lives in the company's computing universe.
Just like Apple. But Apple's still the king.