Strange Android Devices Try To Make A Monkey Of Apple’s Gorilla

Wayne Rash is senior correspondent for eWEEK and a writer with 30 years of experience. His career includes IT work for the US Air Force.

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Tablet makers, realising they can’t beat the iPad 3, are trying to play different games instead. Wayne Rash asks: will it work?

After the 2012 Mobile World Congress (MWC) wraps up in Barcelona, Spain, this week, the mobile world’s attention will turn to San Francisco, where Apple is likely to announce the iPad 3 on 7 March.

While the iPad 3 isn’t really a product yet, at least in theory, it’s clear that the rest of the tablet industry is already trying to scramble out of the way so that their devices don’t get crushed in the onslaught. Although Apple isn’t even at MWC, it’s still the 1,000-pound gorilla in the room.

Battling with the gorilla

This means that tablet manufacturers have been looking desperately for some way to appear to be different from the iPad.

Asus is an excellent example. Instead of slugging it out with Apple in an ill-conceived struggle that it’ll never win, Asus has come up with the Padfone. This is a tablet with an embedded smartphone.

The 4.3-inch phone acts as the tablet’s brains, while the tablet is really just a docking station and display for the phone. Both devices run Android 4.0 – or Ice Cream Sandwich – and there’s a Bluetooth accessory that lets you answer the phone while it’s inside the tablet.

But that’s not all that’s happening at Asus. The company has also launched new models of its Transformer Pad, which lets you convert a tablet into a laptop. This is similar to what Hewlett-Packard started doing a decade ago with a series of Microsoft Windows-based tablet computers that in various configurations had either a foldaway keyboard or a removable keyboard that allowed the tablet to operate independently. The biggest difference between then and now is that the new Asus tablets use Android rather than Windows, and it reflects current practice in tablet design.

HP, meanwhile, still makes those tablets, along with a similar Slate Tablet.

Phabulous tablets

Adding to the mix is something called the “superphone”, or “phablet”.

Appearing at first to be a mild-mannered Samsung Galaxy, the illusion vanishes as you approach it. This phone has a 5.3-inch screen, and recognising its size takes away from its usefulness as a phone, Samsung has decided to call it the Galaxy Note. The big screen lends itself to note taking (thus, the name) and in a back-to-the-future change, the GalaxyNote includes an active stylus, something that other tablet makers, such as HTC, are also starting to use with their smaller tablets.

The tablet processor battle continues, as well.

Nvidia’s Tegra 3 quad-core processor is showing up virtually everywhere, including the Samsung Galaxy Tab, the HTC One smartphone, the LG Optimus 4X and a new device from Fujitsu that may be a tablet or a super phone. (Fujitsu is apparently also introducing a waterproof tablet that’s not Tegra-based.) There’s also a new Tegra-based tablet from Acer, and the Asus tablets are using this processor, as well.

All at 10s and sevens

There are, of course, plenty of plain ol’ 10-inch tablets showing up at MWC, but even those have something that Apple isn’t doing, even if it’s selling tablets at a lower price. And the number of seven-inch tablets being introduced defies counting.

But the one constant is that just about everyone in the tablet business is trying to be as much not like the iPad as possible. This might partly be due to the protracted legal battles between Apple and Samsung about whether you can patent the appearance of a tablet. But the biggest reason is the sheer marketing power of Apple and the iPad. When the iPad 3 is announced on 7 March, the floodgates will open, and the tide will suck buyers away from anything that resembles an iPad and into Apple’s camp.

Diversification brings innovationThe scramble to be different is based on this “gotta have an iPad” mindset among consumers, and necessarily so. Fighting Apple is basically a non-starter if all you’re trying to be is another tablet just like the iPad, but running Android. As a number of vendors, notably Samsung, have found out, this doesn’t work. People buy tablets for a lot of different reasons, but if that reason involves having an iPad, that’s all that will work.

Fortunately, this competition creates a sort of tablet evolution. By having to be different to survive, tablet makers have to come up with ideas that improve the breed as it were. Who would have thought, for example, that the stylus would make a comeback? Who would have imagined that the long, much missed Palm Pilot would reappear, but as the Galaxy Note?

While it’s wise not to be caught up in the hype that’s already surrounding the mobile device introductions at MWC, it pays to know what’s out there that your company can use, and what is just one more piece of derivative technology. This means that it probably makes no sense to buy a wannabe iPad. But it could make a lot of sense to look at something that transcends the iPad and brings your company real value.