For this week’s TIME.com column–the first, incidentally, to appear on Thursday, our new publication date–I took a look at the tablet-fest that was this year’s CES. There was so much news about entrants new and old that it was impossible to be comprehensive–I understand one commenter’s frustration that I didn’t mention the Notion Ink Adam–but I still think the big development was the profusion of would-be iPad rivals running Android. In a remarkably short amount of time, we’ve gone from one major Android tablet (Samsung’s Galaxy Tab) to so many that it’s tough to keep track of them all. If all these models show up and aren’t flops, Android is going to be the dominant tablet operating system, at least for a while.
As I say in the TIME column, I think that tablet software is more important than tablet hardware: Most of the devices at CES were remarkably similar in every way except for screen size. Android 3.0 Honeycomb, the first truly tablet-friendly version of the OS, is going to play an enormous role in defining all these new tablets. And we still don’t know that much about it.
Google did provide a fairly extensive demo at the show…
…but the Honeycomb tablets I got some hands-on time with–Motorola’s Xoom and Toshiba’s not-yet-named model–didn’t let me try Honeycomb for myself. (The Xoom was running a video loop of the interface; the Toshiba had an earlier version of the OS.)
What we’ve seen of Honeycomb looks pretty good. But I’m still struck by how dependent most of Apple’s competitors are going to be on a piece of software that still isn’t finished. (Sure, it’s a new upgrade to an OS that’s been around for a couple of years, but if it’s not substantially different from the smartphone-centric versions of Android, it’s going to be a major disappointment.)
If the tablet market we end up with consists of Apple competing with a bunch of companies standardized on one OS, it’ll look an awful lot like the PC market we’ve had for eons. But it took Windows a decade or so–and several versions, including the profoundly rudimentary Windows 1.0 and Windows 2.0–to become truly pervasive.
Android is trying to fast-forward to Windows 95-like ubiquity in a matter of months. Whatever happens, it’s going to be fascinating to watch…