Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Tablet Wars Have Begun

A few weeks ago I picked up a Samsung Galaxy Tab. Being an Android developer, I thought it was a good idea to see how my apps as well as other apps function on the Tab. After all, it’s hard not to remember what it was like for iPhone developers when the iPad came out. iPhone apps run on the iPad, but they are virtually unusable. They either look ridiculously small, or you can “2x” them and they look like crap. So there was (and is) a lot of pressure on iPhone developers to port their apps to the iPad. Would the same thing hold true for Android developers and the Tab?

I am pleased to say that this is not the case for the Galaxy Tab. Most Android applications look good on the Tab. In fact, I would say that most of them look great. The extra real estate only adds to things. Now there are cases where the apps could make better use of space, or maybe their buttons look a little too big on the Tab. However these are minor issues compared to what it is like to run an iPhone app on an iPad.

That being said, there are some apps that suffer on the Galaxy Tab. Notably some popular weather apps (The Weather Channel’s app, Weather Bug) looked bad on the Tab. However in subsequent weeks these apps have released updates that now look good on the Tab. During that time ESPN’s Scorecenter app also released an update. The previous version of the app looked fine on the Tab, since it relied heavily on ESPN’s mobile website. The update brought a more native UI with less reliance on mobile web. However, it has some serious layout issues and looks bad on the Tab.

So why is it that most apps look good on the Tab, but a few do not? Is it something inherent to Android vs. iOS? Well, yes and no. It is not really anything inherent to Android the OS or Android the SDK. However, Android is designed to work on different sized screens and always has been. As a developer, you are given many choices for creating the layout of your UI, but you are encouraged to use relative/flow-based layouts. These are fluid and resize beautifully on different sized screens. So you take those apps and drop them on to a tablet, and they look just as good.

Of course you don’t have to use these kinds of layouts. You can use layouts that are more fixed and absolute -- which is the norm for iOS developers. However, then you run into Weather Bug and ESPN style problems. Their developers can make adjustments to make their apps look good on tablets, but they may find themselves doing this again when ten-inch tablets start showing up.

I think the fact that most Android apps run seamlessly on the Tab is a significant selling point of the device. If you have 200 iPhone apps, chances are that either many of them will not have been ported to the iPad, or if they were, then it will be as a different app (Blah blah blah HD!) that you will have to purchase. If you have 200 Android apps, then you are good to go on the Tab.

The Tab has a few other advantages over the iPad. The one most people talk about is that it is more portable. This is not a small advantage. I just got back from a trip to Portland. When I’m there, I often like to go to the Starbucks near Pioneer Square to get tea and a scone for breakfast. One time I took my iPad with me, because I wanted to read blogs or news, catch up on Twitter and Facebook, etc. while I ate my scone. However I didn’t like having to carry it, and it was especially inconvenient once I got my tea and scone (3 items, 2 hands.) So I took it with me one time and never again. Instead I would just use either my iPhone or Nexus One. However this time I had my Tab and I always took it. Even with it raining, I could just put it in the inside pocket of my jacket and it was no trouble at all.

Then there is the related issue of weight. I have often read books (via the Kindle app) on my iPad while on airplanes, or at a cafĂ©, or just around my house. The iPad always makes my wrist very tired, and I find myself switching hands or trying to awkwardly prop it up on something. The Tab is so much lighter that this is never a problem. I am currently reading Stephen King’s The Waste Lands on the Tab (also via the Kindle app) and have had no problems with my wrist tiring out.

I would say that the above three things are the major advantages of the Galaxy Tab over the iPad. Android apps work much better on it than iPhone apps work on the iPad; it is portable; it is much lighter. There are some other things too, like it having two cameras instead of zero, or being available on Verizon, T-Mobile, etc. Just to be fair though, the iPad still has some significant advantages over the Tab.

The bigger screen is obviously the biggest advantage. This really opens up the iPad for a lot of experiences that aren’t possible on the Tab, or would suffer. Also, it makes using non-mobile optimized websites much better on the iPad. For example, is pretty usable on the iPad. On the Tab, it is ok in landscape mode, but definitely not in portrait. So I would not really consider using it on the Galaxy Tab, but would on the iPad. Of course there is still a decent chance that a non-mobile optimized site is going to have problems on the iPad still.

The bigger size of the iPad also leads to a larger battery. To me the battery life of the iPad is amazing. I do not use my iPad that much, so often it will go many days on standby. It blows me away how little battery is drained from say five days of standby. I have the non-3G iPad, so that makes a big difference, but still you just cannot beat the battery life of the iPad.

Big screen and big battery are big advantages. However if you want to watch TV & movies on your tablet-of-choice, then the iPad has an even more bigger advantage: iTunes. There is no good way to download a movie and watch it on your Galaxy Tab. I think we will see Netflix on Android and thus the Tab in the next few months. That will help, but Netflix’s streaming selection is still very limited. However, iTunes has an excellent selection. I would guess that we will also see Amazon’s Video-on-Demand on Android, since it is on the Android-based GoogleTV. That will help with selection as well, but still it will fall well short of what’s on iTunes. Plus any streaming solution is more limited than iTunes buy/rent model. Not to mention that there is already a Netflix iPad app, and it would be shocking if Amazon didn’t have a VOD app for the iPad sometime next year as well. If you want to watch TV shows or movies on your tablet, the iPad is definitely the way to go for the foreseeable future.

Based on the above, if a friend/family member asked me if they should buy a Galaxy Tab or an iPad I would ask them three questions:
1.) Do you plan on using it primarily at home/office, or do you want to take it with you when you are out or traveling?
2.) Do you use a lot of apps on your phone?
3.) Do you want to watch TV shows or movies on it?

Regardless of how they answered these questions, I think that a tablet like the Galaxy Tab or the iPad can replace a laptop for most people, but not everyone. If you are a heavy user of office-apps (word processing, spreadsheet, presentation software), then a tablet cannot be your primary device. I think the new MacBook Air is perfect for such folks. This is also a space where the ChromeOS netbooks have a chance to compete, as well as traditional Windows-based netbooks. If you do more “creative” activities, like graphical design, photography, and of course programming, then you need a real machine with serious RAM & CPU. That’s why my MacBook Pro will remain my primary machine for a long time. A tablet will always be complementary for folks like me. That’s why I think the portability and lightness of the Galaxy Tab outweighs the bigger screen and battery of the iPad for people who really need a laptop or even a netbook.