It's like 2007 all over again: The world is waiting with bated breath for someone to step up to Apple. Last time it was to answer the iPhone. This time, the iPad. Here's what we want to see.
All signs point to the first—and most—attractive competitors to the iPad running Android, which sets up the next few months to be eerily familiar. Flash back to late 2007, when smartphone makers were formulating their responses to Apple's iPhone. Then, we were waiting for Android. Today, once again, we are waiting for Android.
Google's first try at smartphonery, carried out at their behest by HTC and T-Mobile, fell short in a handful of ways. But by and large, it was a great start, and led to some of the best handsets money can buy today. The stage is set for this to happen again, but with a mature Android and a huge-scale test case to draw from, it should happen faster. To use an immediately tired phrase, we want to see an iPad killer, and we want to see it soon. Problem is, a lot of the current contenders look like they're heading down the wrong path. Here's what they need:
Everyone's got something to complain about with the iPad, but the most serious issue, as I see it, is existential: The iPad can't exist on its own. Before someone can even use an iPad, the first thing he or she must do is sync it with another computer.. You can't subscribe to podcasts on the device. It's difficult to transfer non-video, non-audio documents to it. There's no visible file system. In that crucial way, it really is just a giant iPod. People want to use a tablet like a computer, not an accessory.
By nature, Android is ready to better iPhone OS on the independence front—it's a sync-less OS, slurping down data from the cloud, and at no point demanding to be connected to a host machine. Apps can access a folder-style file system, and from which they can open and save documents. Android, the phone OS, has laid a lot of the groundwork for an independent tablet, but it needs work.
We've lamented Android's lack of a syncing app in the past, mainly because the multimedia situation on Android is conspiciously lacking. There's no user-friendly (and I mean stupid-simple, grandparent-proof) way to transfer audio and video to your Android phone. This could be rectified with a simple media sync app. But for audio and video, the focus should be on media storefronts, and on-device media management. The only time you should need to connect your Android tablet to another computer is if you want to move specific media from that device to your tablet, the same way you might want to copy your music library to a new laptop. Once that's done, you should be able to maintain the tablet without connecting to a PC, or worrying about sync.
If the ideal Android tablet exists as a computer, not an accessory, it needs accessories of its own. The iPad's accessory situation is tightly controlled, and to be honest, pretty grim. Give your Android tablet a pair of USB ports that can act as hosts, and let us connect keyboards, mass storage, and even Android phones.
Android is already equipped to accept mass storage in the form of microSD cards, so adding another form of easily attachable mass storage should be trivial. To be able to take your coworker's thumb drive, plug it into your tablet and open its contents on your device is vital. The iPad can't do this. Android tablets should.
The fact that Android has severely limited video codec support is less of a problem on a phone, because, well, it's a phone. But if you can't watch video on a tablet, it's basically useless.
As much as video playback it touted on the iPad, Apple's tablet isn't actually that good at playing video. The only videos on my hard drive that would sync with my iPad were videos I'd either a.) purchased from iTunes, or b.) exported from iMovie. c.) Ripped or converted specifically to be played on my iPhone or iPad, using handbrake. Dumb! So, Google: codecs. Let me play my Xvid and Divx videos. Don't choke on any file ending in ".avi." The Android tablet should take my videos and play them back, no questions asked.
Hell, if I can run a torrent client on the device, I should be able to play back my loot.
Apple's Mistakes Are Google's Gain
When Apple decided to create a tablet by blowing up a phone, rather than shrinking down a laptop, they'd made the right choice. It was the right choice because it gave us a device with all-day battery life, a UI sensibility designed around finger input, and a massive app ecosystem. But Apple took the tablet-as-a-large-phone philosophy too far, failing to address some of its mobile OS's worst limitations—limitations that don't make sense for a tablet.
Google, and tablet makers, this is your chance. Dell can't do it alone, nor can Google. But a serious effort by Google and its partners to give us these painfully obvious features in their first answers to the iPad could, for once, trump Apple in the first wave. Bring on the iPad killers.