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2011: A Tablet Odyssey

A tablet deal with Verizon would fix those problems, of course, but it would still leave Google competing with its own OS customers. A couple of dozen Asian hardware manufacturers have spent the past 6-12 months experimenting with Android on tablets. Acer boss Gianfranco Lanci showed a 7-inch Android tablet in May, Asus showed a prototype 10-incher at Computex, and Samsung’s Galaxy Tab was leaked in June. LG, Toshiba, Lenovo and Motorola are also expected to enter the fray, and Motorola’s Stingray tablet has also been tipped as "the Google Pad". Google does not need to offer its own hardware in order to kick-start the market.

HP's Slate might have been canned, but there are many others following in its wake.

Whether Android or Apple’s iOS will eventually win remains to be seen. Early-stage markets typically have 25 or more competitors, and the early leaders rarely end up with the prize. The mini-computer wars, for example, saw IBM, DEC, Data General, HP, Wang, Prime and other companies fighting it out with proprietary operating systems, but the winners were Linux and Microsoft’s Windows Server. The first six years of the personal computer market saw fights between machines running Digital Research’s CP/M and dozens of proprietary alternatives from Acorn, Apple, Commodore, Tandy and others. In 1981, IBM came in late and swept most of them away.

The tablet market has been bubbling away for two decades: the first touch-screen tablet I used was Grid’s GRiDPad, which was running DOS, in 1989. A decade later, we had Microsoft’s Internet Companions - tablets running Windows CE - and a dozen or so wireless WebPads. In 2001, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates announced PCs running Windows XP Tablet Edition, saying: "I’m already using a Tablet as my everyday computer. It’s a PC that is virtually without limits - and within five years I predict it will be the most popular form of PC sold in America.”

Today, the focus is on Android versus Apple, but HP plans to enter the market with tablets running WebOS, from its Palm purchase, and Microsoft Windows 7. There are Linux-based offerings besides Android, Maemo, MeeGo, etc. RIM’s rumoured BlackPad will apparently run QNX, according to the Bloomberg news agency. Some companies are still selling tablets running Windows CE, and we can expect a few running Windows Phone 7 or Windows 7 Embedded.

I’d bet on Android, at the moment. However, I also recall that DEC was once synonymous with mini-computing, the Apple II dominated the personal computer market, Sega’s Mega Drive bossed the console market and Palm ruled in PDAs. Ultimately, customers vote with their wallets. The safest way to predict the winner is to wait until the war is over.

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