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The iPad competition is almost here from RIM, H-P and Motorola

The RIM PlayBook

The RIM PlayBook

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Updated: April 22, 2011 10:07PM

Despite the iPad’s ungodly dominance of a market that Apple pretty much created, the scramble for the biggest piece of that pie is still very much on. All Apple has really done done so far, really, is prove that tablet computing can actually be great – despite what anyone whose ever used a Windows Tablet Edition machine will tell you.

But before anybody can declare that the iPad is truly the greatest tablet on the market, other tablets will actually need to exist. And they’ll need to bring some serious game.

The companies who are developing The Next Great iPad have two advantages that the iPad’s designers lacked: they have the iPad to copy from, and they have more than a year’s worth of iPad user data to draw upon for additional guidance. Suffice to say that the next year of hardware releases could make the tablet market a verrrrrry interesting place.

So far, RIM, Motorola, and HP have stepped forward to either challenge the Black Knight to a chivalric duel to the death for market supremacy ... or maybe just get their hands in the till. They had their sample hardware out in the open during Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this week and I spent my first hands-on playtime with each of them.

It’s still way too early for a substantive review (none of these functional samples were the final, shipping product; many were still in a wobbly state of flux). But it’s never too early in the day to walk around the paddock and eye the horses before they’re lined up at the starting gate.

The RIM PlayBook

If we forget about the Samsung Galaxy Tab — and God, yes, that’s just plain good advice — then RIM was the first major, established company to formally respond to the iPad with an actual product. The company has been slowly teasing its features in a series of YouTube videos that had left me a little confused about its role. Was it just an extension of a Blackberry? And they’re releasing a new, vaguely-defined machine running an OS that nobody’s ever heard of. It made me wonder if maybe RIM lost a bar bet with somebody.

Hands-on playtime with the PlayBook turned me around. It’s a slim, compact tablet that has the clean lines of an ebook reader instead of a tablet device. It’s too big to fit in an inside jacket pocket, but it’ll fit into other pockets with ease and thus it serves to remind even the most strident iPad fan of every time that they didn’t really want to carry a bag to a meeting, but had to.

Product managers prepare their industry-event sample devices with the same ruthlessness as moms getting their 6-year-olds ready for a beauty pageant. So when I say that the sub-HD display was crisp, detailed and had even, punchy color ... think of all of the spray-tanning that went on backstage before it put on that kind of show.

Still, the fact that the PlayBook can look that good under optimal conditions is a positive sign.

I’m more interested in operational matters, anyway. I was pleased to see just how clean and uncluttered the PlayBook OS is. It gives the impression that its purpose is to simply (a) help you manage tasks and apps and (b) to stay out of your way.

Those are key Wins in a tablet. During my year of using an iPad, I’ve come to appreciate that you’re always swapping and switching apps on a tablet. My iPad might have been an email device when I dropped it into my bag but the next time I take it out, it’ll be an e-reader. Or a word processor.

I liked the PlayBooks’ mechanism for task management. The touch sensors actually extend slightly beyond the dimensions of the screen. Swipe from the frame upwards, and you’re looking at your library of apps and data; tap what you want to launch or switch. If you’re just looking to move from the web browser to your calendar, just swipe across from one of the side edges.

I also had a conversation that clarified one or two things. Naturally, the PlayBook works intimately with a Blackberry (when it’s paired with a RIM phone, it becomes an extension of that device’s content and network connections) but it’s a standalone computer. Good.

Hewlett-Packard TouchPad

I have decided that inside the marbled walls of IhnatCorp Advanced Thought Propulsion’s world headquarters, Hewlett-Packard’s WebOS-based tablet will be known as the HammerPad.

All throughout my demo, the MC Hammer song kept going through my head: “Can’t touch this!”

No, I couldn’t play with it. No, I couldn’t try the keyboard. Could I at least just pick it up, simply to get a sense of the weight? Surely I jest.

Clearly, HP was unaware that I have older sisters. This sort thing was triggering long-buried Little Brother responses. It was all I could do not to hold my finger a quarter of an inch from the screen and say “I’m not touching it. Does this bug you? I’m not touching it. I’m not touchinnnng ittttt!”

Amusingly enough, the actual name of their tablet is the TouchPad.

My demo left me feeling ambivalent. Overall, the HammerPad — no, sorry, I really shouldn’t use that in print — the TouchPad seemed like a Stepford Wives edition of the iPad. It’s an exact copy, only ... pleasanter. Maybe creepily pleasanter.

(For the sake of my metaphor, please take it that I agree that bumping off your spouse and replacing him or her with a robot is an indefensibly immoral act, unless you want to become a superhero crimefighting team.)

What I mean is: the TouchPad is the same shape and size as the iPad. The iPad has an Apple logo on the back, dead-center? Cool. That’s where HP put their own logo, in a circle, in the same spot at the same size.

Even the WebOS interface looks eerily like iOS in places. The virtual keyboard has the same “close the keyboard drawer” button in the same place.

What would I want a Stepford Pad to do better than the iPad? OK, well, the iPad’s mechanism for sending alerts and notifications to the user is modal and annoying. The TouchBook won’t annoy me that way. I also wish the iPad had an open file system, so loading up data on it were simpler. Stepford Pad says: “Oh, sweetie. I’m sorry if I caused you any trouble. Here: part of my storage is a virtual flash drive that any computer can open via USB. Can I pour you another gimlet?”

Still, I don’t know how to react to the TouchPad. My ambivalence is the result of two separately-sound concepts that are in conflict:

1) Why shouldn’t I be happy that the TouchPad reminds me so much of the iPad? I think the iPad is awesome. It was practically designed to influence everything that came after it. What, HP is going to steal from companies that don’t know how to build a decent tablet? WebOS gives the TouchPad a very pretty, uncluttered, and task-focused appearance that appeals to me.

2) Er ... I don’t need something that’s “just like an iPad.” This iPad I’ve got already is already more like an iPad than anything else that’s not precisely an iPad.

There’s also the nagging worry that if these snap-impressions are correct and the TouchPad is primarily “an iPad, with some improvements made” then will this thing still look good when Apple takes the wraps off of the iPad 2, and the next edition of iOS?

But none of these thoughts are particularly relevant because this column here isn’t a review. On the surface, yes, one thing is clear: in swashbuckling times, the iPad would be the king of France and the TouchPad would be plotting revenge, locked in a remote castle tower with his head encased in an iron mask. But the true character of WebOS and the TouchPad won’t reveal itself until I’ve had a full day of hands-on.

And remember: those no-good Skeezixes at HP wouldn’t even let me handle the thing.

(I’m sure I’ll be completely over it after I’ve been stewing about it for another 8 hours on the plane ride home.)

Motorola Xoom

It would appear that Motorola’s Xoom will be the first of these serious competitors to have actual tablets in actual stores. It’s the flagship device of Android 3.0, the first edition of Google’s mobile OS that was built with tablets in mind.

Which means that while the Xoom looks an awful lot like the iPad — down to the aluminum-ey back topped with a black plastic stripe shrouding the radio antennas — the similarities end the moment you fire it up.

RIM’s PlayBook showed me that smaller tablets could come across as tablet computers and not like phones with undiagnosed thyroid problems. The Xoom showed me that the widescreen aspect ratio could certainly work in a tablet.

I’ve been skeptical. The iPad’s screen size — shared by the TouchPad, of course — is soothing and functional because it’s familiar. It’s a shape that can be filled efficiency by content and user interfaces, and it works well in a device that’s meant to be held in a hand or dropped in a lap. A wider screen just seemed sort of…wider.

I got over that immediately. It’s a non-issue.

Overall, the Xoom is a lovely object. Its industrial design isn’t as reassuring as the iPad’s (which looks as though it was released from a crystal in Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, on a day when Kal-El was deemed mature enough to use the wisdom contained therein). It feels just a little bit cheaper. But it still feels like a useful, durable tool instead of a media toy.

Motorola has done a fine job in creating a strong first impression with the hardware. Did Google do as well with the OS? I’m not so sure.

When you put the iPad — and the PlayBook and the TouchPad — on the same table with the Xoom (which runs Android 3.0), you’re immediately confronted by a fundamental difference in OS philosophies. The machines that aren’t running Android seem to work very hard to not put anything on the screen that the user doesn’t really want or need at this exact moment. The Xoom seems to regard the screen as a place to spread out your tools and ponder Destiny.

I’m looking at the screen of the Xoom right now and I’m counting up all of the Stuff. I see application icons, toolbar tools, widgets, two clocks, a search box ...

My concern is that it implies that Android 3.0’s engineers didn’t spend a whole lot of time in drum circles praying and meditating on What It Means to design an OS for a tablet. If this screen measured 24” diagonally, were mounted on a big metal foot, and stood on a desk at the intersection point between a mouse and a keyboard, it wouldn’t look the slightest bit out of place.

Again, we’re strictly talking about first impressions here. I can see that my first days with the Xoom will be spent doing some of my own praying and meditating.

The others

And then there were a couple of also-rans. LG showed off their G-Slate tablet. It’s another Android 3 tablet but with a major differentce: armed with a stereoscopic camera and can shoot 3D images and video. It can display 3D as well, provided you’ve got a pair of those ultra-sexy 3D glasses on you.

This provoked a “That’s nice, dear,” response from your correspondent. I’m keen to see what they do with this basic tablet design once they strip away the gimmick.

Intel was also on hand and had samples of various MeeGo devices. MeeGo isn’t really a consumer product. It’s a set of hardware and software and infrastructure ingredients that a manufacturer or a mobile carrier can combine to produce their own devices. As such, it can be an incubator for practically anything and if you ever wind up owning a MeeGo netbook or tablet, you’ll probably never know it.

It’s relevant to my Tablet Hunt because they had a 12” WeTab (based on Intel’s Atom mobile processor). This was probably the third or fourth 12” tablet I’ve sampled in the past couple of years and I’ve now given up on seeing the charm in this particular form factor. You can make a tablet that’s ebook-sized. You can make one that’s widescreen. You can punch a hole in the corner of one and wear it as a replacement for a misplaced eyebrow ring. It’ll still function (the tablet; your eye socket is a goner). But when you scale a tablet up beyond 10”, something about the basic concept breaks and can’t be fixed.

Final thoughts

One matter of note: all of these tablets I’ve written about, and all of the others I saw at Mobile World Congress, had glossy screens. Just like the iPad. Of all of the complaints about the iPad that have been lodged over the past year, that’s the one that no manufacturer has chosen to fix ... which would imply that it was actually the right idea in the first place.

So what have I concluded from all of this? I sure haven’t made any judgments. I only really felt like I had a handle on what made the iPad special after two or three days of testing ... and only when the thing was released, and I was finally free to use my pre-release hardware in public, did I fully get it.

In the coming months, the PlayBook, the TouchPad, and the Xoom will pass through my office and I’ll finally have something substantial to say about them. I’m certainly taking the PlayBook a lot more seriously than I was last week. I’m intrigued by the TouchPad and I wonder if it’s possible for an outside company to produce a credible iPad 2 (I doubt it, but I’m open to the possibility).

I’m most eager to get my hands on the Xoom because it’s different from the others. The iPad has urged me to define “the right approach for tablets” along its lines. The PlayBook and TouchPad seem to be following the iPad’s lead. The Xoom works like an Android tablet, for good or for ill.

I think it’ll prove once and for all whether or not the iPad has earned its success, or if it was simple the right tablet at the right time…with a year’s headstart on all of the competition.

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