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The definitive gadget of CES 2011 was the Android tablet, heralded by more than one company as the answer to the iPad. A train-wreck of a year later this week at CES 2012, would-be iPad competitors are keeping a low profile with a few key partners still not ready to announce when they’ll embrace Google’s revamped tablet software.
It’s not that we haven’t seen new Android tablets this week from those who embraced Android tablets a year ago. Samsung launched the Galaxy Tab 7.7 for Verizon’s LTE network, Toshiba promised its 10.1-inch Android tablet would arrive in the U.S. during the first quarter, and several other companies like Acer, Asus and Lenovo showed off their wares.
But far more smartphones were launching during the event as U.S. carriers essentially dumped a year’s worth of new releases into three days. Perhaps the lack of tablet enthusiasm stems in part because tablet vendors are still evaluating Google’s Android 4.0 software.
Samsung refused to commit to a time frame for releasing Android 4.0 on its new tablet. Toshiba still hasn’t decided, with one source familiar with the company’s deliberations painting a picture in which executives are torn between wanting to launch as soon as possible or waiting for the upgraded software. (It didn’t help when the Android 3.0-running Excite crashed during a demo merely switching from landscape mode to portrait mode.)
Motorola (NYSE: MMI) was silent during the show with respect to tablets, but at least it has already committed to bringing Android 4.0 to the doomed Xoom and the bizarrely-named Xyboard. Only the smaller companies at CES, such as Lenovo, were willing to publicly commit to Ice Cream Sandwich tablets later this year. Dell, which released a few poorly received Android tablets last year, wouldn’t even commit to using either Android or Windows 8 on a forthcoming tablet.
On one hand, the reluctance is a bit strange given how important Android 4.0 is to the Android tablet effort. It unifies the smartphone and tablet versions, making it easier to develop applications for both platforms, and has had more time to bake in Google’s labs than the rush-job that was Android 3.0.
The more pressing question is whether or not they’ve learned anything from what Amazon (NSDQ: AMZN) has done with the Kindle Fire, which is about as non-Android an Android tablet as one can make and has sold much better than any of the other Android competitors (largely because of the loss-leader price, of course).
And when it comes to Windows 8 tablets, only Intel (NSDQ: INTC) showed off a reference design tablet running Microsoft’s next operating system version scheduled to arrive later in 2012, and only very briefly. HP (NYSE: HPQ) CEO Meg Whitman said that her company would make Windows 8 tablets after it shuttered its TouchPad group, but HP has released no details.
I still believe that there is another tech company that can build a successful tablet, but this is the year in which those companies have to make their move. One off year, given the problems with Android 3.0 and the pricing missteps from the first launches, can be written off.
Two indifferent years from consumers will make it that much harder for iPad competitors to ever make a breakthrough in the tablet market.