A Massive War Is Approaching As The Tablet Market Cannot Sustain Six Separate Platforms

Can you hear that? It’s the sound of war. Better choose your side soon, too. The tablet wars are going to get nasty.

Apple’s army is prepped, already backed by over 3 million zealous iPad owners. But the Google Android horde is quickly banding together and will soon offer countless weapons from several major CE houses and dozens of smaller camps. Google is also quietly forming the stealthy Chrome OS platoon that will likely enter the battle a bit late, but shouldn’t be forgotten, ether.

Then there’s the suit & tie brigade with their trusty BlackBerry holstered on their hips, ready to be tethered to the coming BlackPad. Don’t forget about the wildcard: The HP-produced, webOS-powered PalmPad no doubt has a couple of tricks, enough to put up a decent fight. Then there’s the battle-tested Windows that might still be able to fire a few direct shots.

The tablet wars are coming and not everyone is going to survive. There simply isn’t enough market share to support the five or more upcoming tablet platforms.

This has been on my mind for some time and here’s how I see it playing out: Apple doesn’t count. They’re really not part of the early battles because, well, they’ve already claimed their territory and there are simply too many other platforms competing for the same market to truly challenge iOS devices in the near future. That will hopefully change down the road, but for now, Apple is safe. Apple simply sold too many iPads to fail in the short term.

Android vs The Palmpad

The first real battle will be between the Android horde and the Palmpad. The former is backed by Google and countless manufacturers, but utilizes a work-in-progress OS that even its creators deemed not tablet ready. However, the sheer amount of major companies making Android tablets isn’t simply going to let the platform and tarnish their name. Samsung even vowed to ship 10 million Galaxy Tabs by next year.

The Palmpad, however, only has HP behind it right now and while HP is an absolute massive player in every aspect of consumer electronics — both in the manufacturing and trends department — they still have to play their pieces right. There aren’t exactly a lot of developers on board with the platform even though it’s marketable as easier to work with than Android. There just hasn’t been a solid reason to invest in the platform when iOS and even Android has so many more potential customers.

As much as the Palmpad has been touted the first true iPad killer, it likely won’t be. The iPad won’t even be in its sights. Instead, the retail market will naturally position the Palmpad directly against random Android tablets when it launches sometime in 2011.

Can’t you picture the display at Best Buy? The Palmpad will be placed right next to the Samsung Galaxy Tab, the Rocketfish tablet, and some other big name Android tablet in the same aisle as the netbooks while the iPad is chilling all by its sexy self on the Apple display. At the very most, it will be on a computer department endcap. The Palmpad will simply be overrun by the Android horde and that’s a shame.

The BlackPad vs Netbooks

There isn’t much info about the BlackPad out just yet, however, that hasn’t stopped me from already declaring it to be an also-ran and doomed to suffer the same fate as the BlackBerry Storm. Here’s why: It’s getting to the market too late.

In many ways the BlackPad is said to be a BlackBerry Palm Foleo in that it will act as a complement to BlackBerry devices. This is problematic as the BlackBerry market share is quickly shrinking. There simply will not be as many BlackBerry users next year as there are this year, meaning the there will be less potential BlackPad customers. That’s the wrong trend to build a product ecosystem around.

However, if the BlackPad hit the market even last year, it alone might have stopped some previously BlackBerry-addicted users (like me) from defecting. The concept is neat in that it will tether to a BlackBerry and offer users a bigger screen to work with. But unless there are standalone functions, anyone that doesn’t have a BlackBerry will simply opt for another tablet.

The enterprise market could be the one corner of the consumer electronics’ world that the BlackPad might finally settle, but even that area won’t be a total safe haven as the Windows 7-powered HP Slate 500 and the Cisco Cius 7-inch Android tablet are vying for the same space.

However, if the BlackPad hits Verizon retail stores like the rumors state, the BlackPad will be at the hands of the often-overlooked Verizon sales associates. These well-paid salesmen can make or break a product and often side with the consumer instead of slight differences in pay incentives. And in that case, the BlackPad may end up driving sales of Verizon’s netbooks and other tablets.

No doubt potential customers will see a BlackPad TV spot and inquire about it at a Verizon location. Once they get in there, the Verizon employee will of course inquire about their current phone. BlackBerry. “Here’s the BlackPad right next to the also-versatile netbooks.” Not a BlackBerry. “Oh, well, let me show you the Motorola Android tablet or the various netbooks.”

Like I stated before, the BlackPad might survive long enough to turn a profit for RIM, which I guess is all a company can hope for. However, for our little battle story, it simply will not sell in high enough numbers to be considered a winner. Sorry.

Google Chrome OS vs Google Android

Google is in an interesting position here. Android is massive public undertaking for the search company. It’s their first real foray into the hardware world and seems to be going just fine. Activations are soaring and market share is climbing.

However, that’s just for Android smartphones. Android tablets, as popular as they seem, just aren’t all that spectacular as a couch computer. Android itself is still too much work. Not everyone wants to manage apps, notifications and battery life. Sure, the platform is fantastic for a multi-function device like a smartphone, but it’s almost too much for a casual device.

Chrome OS seems like a perfect tablet OS. Its super fast startup means it doesn’t have to be on standby, needlessly wasting battery. The cloud storage system means tablets can forgo pricey flash memory chips as almost nothing is stored locally. Even smartphone staples such as GPS and accelerometers really don’t need to be included. All that’s needed is a quality CPU/GPU combo, multitouch screen, and connectivity options. Can you say low-cost?

Even the Google Chrome OS app store will likely provide a better tablet experience for not only the end-users, but also the very important development community. The tablet environment can likely be controlled more so in Chrome OS than Android, and there’s a good chance that the apps will also work in the Chrome OS browser, opening up an even larger potential market. This alone should draw a lot more attention to the platform.

But alas, the Chrome OS tablet seems so far away and while Google finishes the operating system, its Android army will either be making friends or burning bridges. No doubt some Android tablet owners will not like their purchase and opt for something totally different the next time around like and iOS device, while others will be satisfied and want more of the same. But as each version of Android irons out the bugs found in the previous release, Google is hopefully finalizing the more consumer-ready Chrome OS. But will it hit too late to stop the iOS onslaught?

Microsoft vs Windows

Windows isn’t new to the tablet war. It’s been fighting against its headmaster Microsoft for years. Hardware makers have been putting different versions of Windows on tablets and convertible netbooks for some time, but none have really caught on. Why? Microsoft doesn’t care about tablets. Well, they do now, but it’s too late.

Windows proper has no business being on a tablet. There is no need to support random items like legacy HP printers, previous software environments and don’t forget that the massive Windows install will take up a sizable chunk of storage. Never mind the fact that the interface model was basically developed in the early ’80s with a mouse and keyboard in mind.

But do you really want to be bugged by pop ups warning you that there’s a Java update or that your Norton Antivirus definitions are out of date? No, but yet a good amount of our readers still want a Windows tablet mainly because of the amount of current apps available.

It’s a fair point on the surface, but the overwhelming majority of those applications are not optimized for finger or stylus input so the argument is somewhat moot. The menus and buttons were developed with the mouse and keyboard in mind. Besides I must point out that besides proprietary applications, how many of those older programs cannot be replaced by a better designed application designed to run on a tablet’s less-powerful platform with the touch interface in mind from the start?

Still, some consumers want a Windows Tablet and Microsoft built into Windows 7 several touch-interface enhancements that at least help with touch navigation. It’s far from perfect and the experience will likely improve as low-power consuming chips increase in speed and efficiency. But eventually there will be a time when Microsoft kills the Windows tablet as it moves away from the past and onto something a bit more modern. Of course given Microsoft’s recent speed, that might not happen this decade.

Developers, Developers, Developers

A product’s success ultimately comes down to units sold, right? Well, in order to sell units, a device needs to have functions. In order for the device to have functions, developers need to be on board and units need to be sold in order to attract developers. This is the not-so-secret sauce behind iOS devices.

The iPad launched with the support of the already successful app store backed by tens of thousands of developers. Consumers knew what they were buying and their favorite apps would at least work on the iPad. Sure, some wouldn’t be natively coded for the iPad, but Apple understood that no one wants a device that has limited apps and ultimately support.

Honestly, as an Android phone owner, I’m jealous of my friends’ iPhones because Android apps blow in comparison. The Android Market is full of sorry iOS ports or even worse, plain crappy applications. This is where Android tablets are stumbling as well because there simply are not as many quality programs available for Android smartphones, let alone Android tablets.

The only hope for Android tablet makers such as Samsung, is to make a ton of native Android apps in-house that are designed with the tablet form factor in mind. HP is said to be running an in-house webOS contest just to build up a library, no doubt for the Palmpad.

The BlackPad might not need to rely on developers as much, though. The native BlackBerry ecosystem is such that it doesn’t really need 3rd party apps, although they couldn’t hurt. Besides, BlackBerry owners are used to not having that many apps available.

So if a platform’s success rides a lot on the developers, iOS devices are pretty much a shoo-in and Apple’s recent backpedaling on strict App Store rules puts the nail in the coffin. Android devices’ only hope is to flood the market with devices and hope something sticks where the Palmpad needs developers support, well, yesterday.

It’s the Chrome OS tablets that interest me the most right now. If Google does it right, and recent precedent doesn’t guarantee this, these tablets could be the true iPad alternative whenever they hit the market. The OS solves Android’s complexity problem, webOS’s lack of developer’s support, and should even counter the notorious Apple tax.

Until then, though, iPads are going to dominate while Android tablets and the Palmpad fight over the scraps.

Illustrations done by our resident ninja, Bryce Durbin.