There are four major players in the tablet market today (prove me wrong, MeeGo!) that a savvy geek needs to keep his eyes on. BlackBerry, iOS, Android and webOS look to be the major platforms of the immediate future. You'll notice Windows 7 is not on that list, despite being relatively common on tablet-style devices. Crappy battery efficiency, sluggish operating speeds and a non-ideal mobile UI keep Win 7 (and any desktop OS) from having a shot at the iPad's crown.
BlackBerry: Two weeks ago, the BlackBerry platform would not have been on this list. Then RIM announced the Playbook and things got interesting. I've already noted that a late release date and fading enterprise interest could make things hard for the Playbook.
That said, it still represents one of the most exciting tablets yet announced. RIM is taking tablets seriously, and they seem to have a pretty good idea of what customers want in a slate. The Playbook is geared for speed and maximum communication efficiency. We don't know battery life yet, but unless RIM really humps a bunk on that one it should be comparable to the iPad.
Of course, by the time the Playbook hits its hardware will be roughly level with the other "next-gen" tablets. So let's cut specs out of the discussion and move straight to the Playbook's OS and UI. Customers already trust BlackBerry in huge numbers, and the phone integration option on the Playbook will help them to turn a goodly portion of that base into tablet owners. It may even stem their loss of market share.
But the real question is whether or not it will allow them to start gaining market share again. RIM lost out to Apple and Google because they fell behind in the communication arms race. The BlackBerry was late to touchscreens and late to realize that the uber-simplified, kid-friendly iOS was the future of mobile UI design. They kept building phones for "businessmen", even after many of those businessmen decided they preferred the attractive simplicity of Android or iOS.
iOS: Apple is King Boy here. Their lead in the tablet market is even more commanding than their lead in the smartphone market was back in 2008. Despite ample warning, their fiercest competitors have failed to throw any real obstacles in the iPad's face. We're hearing rumors of a new, ultra-cheap 7" iPad, which could help Apple to go even lower and skewer the entry-level market as well.
An iPad refresh is also due at the start of 2011, which will suck the wind out of RIM's sales and dominate the news for at least the week of its launch. Right now, the tablet market is Apple's to lose.
Android: Back when all this tablet nonsense first started flaring up, there was a sense of certainty in the industry that Android would provide a near-immediate competitor for the iPad. Now of course we know that wasn't the case. The Galaxy Tab may be set to launch in the near future, but Google themselves say that Android 2.2 is not optimized to run on tablets.
We'll need to wait for 3.0 before we see any "with Google" slates. Until then, the only likely Android competition for the iPad will come from Notion Ink. The Adam is roughly equal in power to the Playbook, but comes with a larger (Pixel Qi) display and even more features. Good battery life, a low (under $500 with all the trimmings) price, great ergonomics and a stylish design all help the Adam to stand out in this crowded field.
Perhaps the most heartening thing about the Adam is the fact that a launch date this holiday season is very possible. Notion Ink has a lot on the ball. They've got a great, open corporate attitude and a new eye for design. If the Adam can deliver all (or even just 2/3rds) of what Notion Ink promises, the iPad will have real competition.
Other than that, we're looking towards mid-2011 before we see any viable Android slate launches. That doesn't take the open-source OS out of the running, Google's proven they can catch up to Apple with remarkable speed, but it does mean that the iPad will have another generation to cement itself in the public consciousness.
Whiiiiiich brings us to the end of what we know about the webOS tablet. No renders are out, nor have any meaty leaks really hit yet. So why is webOS up here with Android and iOS as a real contender for the tablet crown? Because webOS is freaking awesome. The Pre has its issues, and Palm's marketing was godawful, but "collect & query" is a fantastic focus for a mobile OS.
Things are easy to find and access on webOS. It moves quickly, multi-tasks well and is extremely efficient. Palm designed a wonderful mobile UI...they just sucked at everything else. But HP is fantastic at building hardware and even better at marketing. They've got the money and the market muscle to make the PalmPad a success.
Check out this video of the leaked Windows 7 HP Slate and tell me it isn't gorgeous. HP has some great tablet designs in their head, and webOS is the perfect thing to drive them. Again, we'll be waiting a bit longer before a webOS tablet pops up, but the sheer potential of the HP/Palm acquisition makes the PalmPad very worthy of consideration.
So those are the four players most likely to dominate the tablet market. And now it's time for my big, scary prediction of the week. One of these platforms will drop out of the running by holiday season 2011. They may still have dogs in the fight, but either Android, webOS or BlackBerry OS will no longer be a viable tablet competitor by the end of next year.
If it seems impossible that such a fate could befall Android, take a look at what Google's been up to on a Chrome OS tablet and think again.