Tablet rivals open up new front in battle with Apple

The battle to challenge Apple’s early dominance of the tablet market is heating up as rivals bet that tailor-made software will boost the appeal of their devices.

Rival tablets rushed out to compete with Apple’s best-selling iPad have fallen short. Samsung said last week its Galaxy Tab was not selling as fast as expected and Toshiba’s Folio device was pulled from shelves in the UK last November after high levels of returns.

Rivals had no difficulty beating the hardware specifications of Apple’s original device – adding cameras and improving connectivity – but have foundered on inadequate software, with neither Google’s Android nor Microsoft’s Windows operating systems proving up to the task of competing with Apple’s iOS.

But that all looks set to change. On Wednesday, Google unveiled its new Android operating system for tablets, codenamed Honeycomb, while Research in Motion (RIM) held an event on Thursday to promote the software advantages of its forthcoming BlackBerry PlayBook slate. Both announced key improvements to their application marketplaces as they tried to compete with Apple’s all-conquering App Store.

Motorola is expected to launch the first tablet running Honeycomb, called the Xoom, this month, while Hewlett-Packard is due to unveil a long-awaited tablet next Wednesday based on its own WebOS operating system, which it acquired in its $1.2bn purchase of Palm last year.

The rush of tablet activity is not only recognition that the iPad has left the competition floundering but also appears to be a pre-emptive strike against Apple, which is expected to unveil an improved version of its tablet in the next few months.

Tim Cook, now running Apple day-to-day during Steve Jobs’ medical leave of absence, is scornful of the opposition, describing Android tablets such as the Galaxy Tab, as “bizarre . . . scaled-up smartphones”.

Apple sold almost 15m iPads last year, giving it a “huge first-mover advantage”, he told analysts on a recent earnings conference call. The battle would not be won and lost at the operating system level, he pointed out, rather it would be shaped by the consumer-appeal of the applications any device can run.

“We have an incredible user experience from iTunes to the App Store, an enormous number of apps and a huge ecosystem. And so we’re very, very confident with entering into a fight with anyone,” he said.

Apple offers more than 350,000 apps for the iPhone, iPad and iPod touch, of which 60,000 are designed specifically for the iPad.

Android, in contrast, has a library of around 130,000 apps, the majority of which are designed just for smartphones, while RIM can offer a relatively low 19,000 apps.

In an attempt to match features available from Apple for over a year, RIM announced the introduction of in-app purchases on Thursday – allowing developers to charge for premium features, such as extra levels of a game or content subscriptions, from within the application.

Google announced the same feature on Wednesday for its Android Market.

Carolina Milanesi, consumer technologies analyst at Gartner, the research firm, says tablets are themselves offering a bigger stage for developers.

“The mobile operating system battle has been moving from smartphones to tablets, tablets add to the ecosystem and make it more attractive to developers because of wider market opportunity and the chance to charge more for apps – because more can be offered on a tablet,” she says.

With software and apps seen as the key to tablet success, operating-system makers like Google and RIM are going all-out to attract application developers to their platforms.

As well as trying to make developers’ apps easier to find and monetise in its webstore, Google also demonstrated how Honeycomb could add to their visual appeal and functionality, with demonstrations of stunning 3D graphics and animated widgets.

RIM emphasised how it was providing easier tools for development, closely tied to open web standards.

The larger smartphone segment supports eight operating platforms but analysts doubt the size of the tablet market will see all those trying to secure a foothold survive.

“It will be a smaller ecosystem of players led by Android and Apple in the near term,” says Allen Nogee, mobile analyst at In-Stat, a research firm.

Growth in the tablet segment is set to pick up sharply in 2011, reaching 45m, according to IDC forecasts. While that number is dwarfed by the expected sale of 330m smartphones this year, the growth prospects for tablets still leaves plenty to fight over.

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