Android device makers around the world are anticipating great things from the next version of Google's mobile software, and they need the boost. Apple has a strong head start with sales of its popular iPad, while the App Store and iTunes give it apps and content, to boot.
But after a year of prodding Google, device makers think they've finally won with the upcoming "Honeycomb" upgrade to Android, which is expected by the end of the first quarter and is supposed to be the first version of the software designed for tablets instead of smartphones.
Earlier this year, for example, Samsung Electronics, had to fight to have the Android Market app, which connects users to the software's online treasure trove of over 150,000 apps, on its Galaxy Tab, according to one executive who asked not to be named due to his company's close relationship with Google.
At the time that Samsung was developing the Galaxy Tab to use Android, Google was struggling to decide if it wanted to put its upcoming Chrome OS in tablets and make Android exclusive to smartphones. The Chrome OS better fits Google's Cloud strategy, the executive said.
A Google spokesperson declined to comment on the issue.
Google's decision to make a tablet-friendly version of Android became a must after Apple launched its groundbreaking iPad, analysts say.
"Earlier in the year, Google probably thought that Chrome OS might be the right platform for tablets. However, the importance of the compatibility of apps across smartphones and tablets, evident from the iPad experience, has created the need for Google to ensure that the commercial success of apps can be preserved in the tablet proposition," said Martin Bradley, an analyst at Strategy Analytics.
Apple sold nearly 8 million iPads through the end of September, making it one of the hottest products of the year. (That tally is from official Apple figures from its quarterly earnings conference call and doesn't include holiday sales.)
By being first, Apple has set the tone for the entire market. Tablet makers need to put out the same OS for their smartphones and tablets so apps can be shared on either device. Even more important, apps specifically designed for tablets need to be made available, to take advantage of the larger screens, more powerful processors and expanded memory on board.
Of the 300,000 or so apps available to Apple iPhone and iPod Touch users, 40,000 are specifically designed for the iPad, and they are marketed that way on Apple's App Store.
By contrast, Google's Android Market does not offer any tablet-only apps to users, only smartphone apps. However, upstart Appslib is filling the void with its own tablet-only app store for Android lovers. Appslib is not affiliated with Google.
The importance of tweaking a version of Android specifically for tablets and putting tablet-only apps on the Android Market cannot be overstated.
Companies expect tablet sales to reach up to 60 million devices in 2011, with Android and Apple's iOS the leading software in the devices.
Market researcher Ovum expects Android and Apple's iOS to take about 71 percent of the total market for tablets and other mobile Internet devices by 2015, while the also-rans, BlackBerry tablet OS, Hewlett-Packard's WebOS, Intel's and Nokia's MeeGo, and Microsoft Windows making up the rest of the share.
"It’s difficult to see past iOS and Android in tablets at the moment," said Tony Cripps, principal analyst of devices and platforms at Ovum.