Besides its cute little green robot mascot, what is it about Android that makes it so popular among device manufacturers and developers alike?
In a word, openness.
For developers, Android's license lets them get right into the heart of the platform's code, without signing their creative lives away. Android is based on open source software, allowing both collaboration (among disparate developers) and customization (of one's own offering). Neither is easily done on iOS, Apple's operating system for its iPads, iPhones, and iPods. Hardware manufacturers appreciate the open nature of Android, too. Android falls under the stewardship of the Open Handset Alliance, a consortium of device makers, mobile operators, and semiconductor, software, and other suppliers.
This openness, though, leads to some problems for both customers and developers. Because designers are allowed to modify Android to suit their needs—which they often do, in the hopes of differentiating their devices from those of other Android makers—different Android tablets can do the same thing in different ways. For example, configuring network settings is a rather different procedure on Samsung's and Archos's tablets, even if you're setting up the same network. Worse, the programming environments that manufacturers come up with for developers can also vary. HTC Corp.'s menus are different from those of their Motorola counterparts, for example, and the ways windows are managed can differ as well. That makes it harder to move from one tablet to another, which is presumably one of the selling points of a single OS. Imagine, for example, the Windows File menu being different on a Dell computer and a Lenovo one.
Yet so far, this fragmentation doesn't seem to be hurting the platform. Android now outsells Apple in smartphones and will do so in tablets, and its primary commercial sponsor, Google, often touts the more than 50 000 apps available for Android. (To be sure, nearly all were designed with smartphones in mind, but that will soon change.) Unlike Apple, which uses its App Store to control which apps are permitted on iOS devices, Android's alliance lets developers create and deploy whatever applications they like, as fast as they'd like. Of course, it's not all a bed of roses: That same free environment has led to applications that are sketchy at best and dangerous at worst. Luckily, the Android community is self-correcting, and such apps don't last long in the light of day.
Unlike iOS, which runs only on Apple's proprietary hardware, Android gives tablet makers hardware flexibility—different processors, for example—and interface options, such as how to sync with a computer.
Of course, more choices mean more caveats for consumers to emptor. So here are some things to look for when considering an Android tablet.
The version. Android's latest release is Android 3.0—its dessert-oriented code name is Honeycomb—and it will be in all the new tablets from the Motorola Xoom onward. Look for Ice Cream Sandwich Android devices in the latter half of 2011. Android 3.0 is the first tablet-specific version, which is why we're only now seeing applications that take advantage of a tablet's size and interface.