Tablets may have been the most talked-about new gizmos of 2010, but nearly all the talk was about one model: Apple's iPad, which instantly defined the category when Steve Jobs unveiled it nearly a year ago. By the end of the year, only one serious iPad alternative Samsung's diminutive Galaxy Tab had gone on sale.
And then there was the tablet coming-out party that was last week's International Consumer Electronics Show (CES). The cavernous Las Vegas Convention Center positively bulged with the things, including newly announced contenders from Dell, Motorola, Panasonic, Toshiba and other tech behemoths, as well as smaller players such as HDTV manufacturer Vizio and bargain-basement dweller Coby. Even Polaroid was showing one.
Despite the flurry of activity, the rest of the industry is still scrambling to answer the iPad. It'll be a few months before it's possible to separate the winners from the also-rans: no major debutante was available for immediate purchase, most manufacturers were cagey about pricing, and some models don't have names yet.
Motorola's Xoom made the biggest splash, snagging best-of-show honors out of 20,000-plus products that premiered at CES. Its 10.1-in. widescreen display is a skosh roomier than the 9.7-in. one on the iPad, and unlike Apple's cameraless tablet, it has cameras on the back (for snapshots) and front (for video calls). The Xoom will be sold with Verizon wireless service 3G at first, with a free upgrade to the much zippier new LTE network in the second quarter of this year. (If you cringe at the prospect of a hefty monthly bill for wireless data, Toshiba's unnamed model similar to the Xoom, but sporting only wi-fi might be more alluring.)
Like most of the new tablets, the Motorola and Toshiba models will run Google's Android operating system. Android 3.0 Honeycomb, the first version designed with tablets in mind instead of smart phones, looks promising, with an all-touchscreen interface replacing the excess of buttons that has hobbled earlier releases. It's also got versions of Gmail, Google Maps and other Google apps that take advantage of tablets' relatively roomy screens, rather than simply stretching the smart-phone versions to fill up more space.
Honeycomb needs to be ready for tablets that will ship within a month or two, but it wasn't ready for CES: the Xooms at the show displayed a video loop of the new version, not the real thing, and Toshiba's tablet was running an older version of Android. It's therefore dangerous to get too excited about it just yet. I also fret that the industry's reliance on one software supplier may result in most models' feeling like bland kissing cousins. (It's tough for companies to differentiate tablets through hardware design alone. In the end, they're all skinny slabs of various sizes.)
While Google may just be getting into the tablet game, it already has a daunting head start on Microsoft, a perverse state of affairs considering that the latter company started trying to popularize tablets more than a decade ago. Microsoft's Tablet PCs never caught on; nor did Slate PCs, the entertainment-centric devices that got a brief moment of glory when CEO Steve Ballmer introduced them at CES 2010.
For CES 2011, Microsoft had one bit of news that could eventually be a huge deal: it's working on a version of Windows that will run on processors based on technology from ARM, the company whose designs are inside most tablets, smart phones and other new-wave computing devices. (Current versions of Windows require x86 processors from firms such as Intel and AMD powerful, energy-hungry chips that are more at home in desktop PCs and laptops than in tablets.)
Microsoft wouldn't say when the new edition of Windows will be ready think 2012 or later and it isn't talking about how it will rejigger the Windows interface to work better on devices that don't have a keyboard or mouse. A few companies did announce tablets at the show based on the current version of Windows, like Samsung's odd-but-clever Slider PC, which tucks a pop-out keyboard underneath its touchscreen. But there won't be an onslaught of new Windows tablets until there's a Windows designed with today's tablets in mind.
A few manufacturers are going their own way. BlackBerry maker RIM assembled its own potent software platform for its 7-in. PlayBook, which it announced back in September and plans to ship early this year, starting at less than $500; the units available for test drives at RIM's CES booth looked at least as impressive as any Android-powered alternative. (It's still not clear, however, whether RIM sees the PlayBook as a fearsome iPad killer or as an accessory for BlackBerry addicts.) And HP is expected to use a Feb. 9 press event to announce one or more tablets based on WebOS, the slick operating system it picked up when it acquired mobile pioneer Palm last July.
Oh, and one more tablet should show up before long: the second-generation iPad. As usual, Apple is staying mum until the moment it's ready to put its hype machine into overdrive. But industry watchers have already tried to puzzle out the likely improvements: dual cameras, a higher-resolution screen, possibly a memory-card slot. Many already-announced tablets match those features. But the 2011 iPad will pack a software upgrade too, and nobody else in the business has yet proven that it can keep pace with Apple when it comes to integrating hardware, software and services into one satisfying experience. In other words, it won't be the least bit surprising if this year's most compelling iPad alternative turns out to be another iPad.
McCracken blogs about personal technology at Technologizer, which he founded in 2008 after nearly two decades as a tech journalist. His column for TIME.com, also called Technologizer, appears every Thursday.