By Eric Freese, Solutions Architect, Aptara
In April I wrote about my first impressions of the newly released Apple iPad. At that time tablet computing, although not new, was getting a major boost as a widely accepted computing platform. Since then, many tablet and eReader devices have come and gone, some never having seen the light of day (remember the Skiff, Que and Courier?).
In a nod to the success of the iPad, each new tablet has been rated on whether it is the “iPad killer.” Thus far, none have been. However, Samsung’s new Galaxy Tab (aka “Tab”) might be the first able to go head-to-head with the iPad.
Disclaimer: I’m a gadget head, a content technologist, and solutions architect for an eBook and app production company. I am a fan of the Android operating system. I owned a G1 Android phone (which I gained system level access to and subsequently made several modifications on), and love my Samsung Vibrant Android phone. So I was intrigued to hear about Samsung’s impending tablet and was waiting at my local T-Mobile store the day of the Tab’s release. After the excitement of playing with my new gadget subsided, I was most interested to understand how this tablet would impact publishers’ move to mobile.
Just as younger children are compared to their older siblings, it seems inevitable that the Tab will be measured based on the high bar set by the iPad. However, there are many ways in which the Tab distinguishes itself from the current market leader.
At almost exactly half the size and weight of the iPad, the Tab is smaller and more portable. It really does fit in your jeans pocket or a purse. It’s easy to hold in one hand for long periods of time without any strain. It is slightly smaller than the Kindle 2 and Nook, even though it has a larger screen (7 inches vs. 6 inches).
Even with its smaller size it boasts a color screen resolution of 1024×600, compared to 1024×768 on the iPad. Packing this many pixels into a smaller screen makes for some truly vibrant colors. The viewing areas are somewhat different at 3.5 inches by 6 inches (1.71 aspect ratio) for the Tab and just under 6 inches by 8 inches (1.33 aspect ratio) for the iPad. More on the importance of the aspect ratios later.
The Tab’s processor handles all of the apps I tested with little hesitation. No complaints. But most notably, the Tab is capable of handling true multitasking (native to the Android OS). Apple’s upcoming iPad iOS 4.2 release is expected to include limited multitasking − only for certain tasks such as messaging and music playback. Other types of processes are simply pushed to the background where they’re held in a sleep state until reactivated.
Another Tab differentiator is its desktop user interface. The Tab, like most Android devices, provides the ability to include widgets on the device’s desktop, whereas Apple’s iOS limits the user to app icons and folders, since no real multitasking is supported.
The Tab has a very solid feel. The screen is made from a scratch-resistant Gorilla glass which can take more of a beating than the iPad’s glass. There is a video on YouTube showing a CO2-powered gas BB gun shooting at the screen, from around a foot away, and not leaving a mark on the screen. I have dropped my Tab a couple times with no damage. In fact, I even banged it on our kitchen counter just to see my kids’ reactions − with no visible impact (to the device).
I wouldn’t try that with my iPad.
The Tab’s video is a little better than the iPad, and the audio essentially the same. The Tab’s default media app, “Media Hub,” allows the user to buy or rent movies and TV shows. The aspect ratio of the Tab allows the video app to use more of the screen in widescreen videos than the iPad. But Media Hub has nowhere near the variety and breadth that iTunes offers. The Tab’s screen is just as reflective as the iPad’s, so is also difficult to view in sunlight.
While the onscreen keyboard is functional, I didn’t type this article on it, as I did with the iPad. In portrait mode, thumb typing works well, even with big thumbs. In landscape mode, some of the letters in the middle are a bit of a stretch, and the keys are too small to really try anything like “regular” typing. The Tab also includes “Swype” software which allows you to move from key to key without lifting your finger. It works well on Samsung’s mobile phone, but for me, the extra screen space on the Tab made it feel a bit more cumbersome. It took some practice for it to feel as natural as on the phone.
Bells and Whistles
Where the Tab really sets itself apart is with the inclusion of two cameras, a phone (in some regions), Adobe Flash, and expandable memory. There is a regular 3.2MP camera for shooting photos and videos, and a 1.3MP front facing camera for video chats. Memory can be expanded using microSD cards up to 32GB. A user with multiple cards can exchange the cards to load books, movies, songs, photos, etc.
US mobile carriers have deactivated the phone capability, but users in other parts of the world can place phone calls with their Tab. US users can only place calls with apps like Skype or Fring.
The Froyo version of the Android OS also embeds Adobe Flash Player 10.1. This allows most Flash-based websites to be viewable on the Tab, rather than showing the blue puzzle piece like on the iPad. Some notable Flash websites, like Hulu, have opted to block mobile users from accessing their content, choosing instead to sell $10/month subscriptions to content that PC/Mac users can view for free. Some Flash game sites like Farmville don’t seem to work, while sites that are mostly Flash videos, like CNET, work well.
One might imagine that some of the commonalities between the Tab and iPhone 4, namely the dual cameras and enhanced screen, will show up on the new iPad rumored for this Spring. Though, as explicit as Steve Jobs has been with his opinions, I’m not holding my breath for a smaller iPad with Flash any time soon. But having a strong competitor will hopefully force Apple to continue to innovate and update iOS and the iPad itself.
Like the iPad, the Tab is primarily a device for consuming content and media as opposed to creating it. Though, its added ability to ‘create’ using the dual cameras and video functionality, gives it an edge over its rival.
The Tab has full access to the Android Market (Google’s answer to Apple’s App Store), something most other Android tablets and non-phone devices do not. Even so, the number of apps available (approx 160,000) is far less than the App Store (approx 300,000). It should be noted that as of August 2010, around 60% of the Android apps are free, whereas only 26% are free in the iPad’s App Store. Whether these extra freebies are worthwhile is in the eye of the downloader.
For business users, the Tab includes the ThinkFree Office suite which includes word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation viewing and editing capabilities, in addition to PDF viewing. The Android email app also allows access to POP, IMAP, and Exchange servers, in addition the Gmail app.
The ecosystems around app development on the two platforms are very different. On iPad and iPhone the control is maintained in a closed environment by Apple, who limits what is made available. The Android environment is considerably more open. Other device manufacturers can take the Android base and modify/customize it as they see fit. This is both a blessing and a curse.
There are many releases of the Android OS (1.5, 1.6, 2.0, 2.1, 2.2, and soon 2.3) on current devices, and probably several versions of each release. This makes Android app development more challenging. Because not all Android apps are compatible with all Android releases, the Android Market allows developers to specify which release an app can run on and then limits downloads to only compatible devices. Also, while Google recently stated that the current Android 2.2 version (aka Froyo) release, on which the Tab is based, isn’t optimized for tablets, Samsung has done a very good job making Froyo work well on a tablet platform. It will also be interesting to see if tablet-only Android apps begin to appear, like the iPad specific apps in the App Store. At this point, I am not sure that the Android Market has a way to differentiate apps in this manner.
An example of where the openness of Android has been a curse is in the development of the Netflix app for Android. Movie studios are balking at allowing Netflix to distribute movies in an Android environment over concerns of users being able to hack the app code and gain access to the video files and possibly redistribute them illegally.
App development in Android is very different compared to app development for Apple’s iOS. The core programming language in Android is Java. While several apps are available for both iOS and Android, chances are that the underlying code is completely different. Publishers considering developing apps for both platforms must be smart about how the apps are developed.
I would recommend that a core engine scheme be used. In this scheme, the processing portions of the app are custom developed for each platform, but the content is kept as a separate interchangeable layer which can be used as input to the different processing layers. This scheme also benefits app development on the same platform where the cost to develop a single engine can be spread across several apps.
For example a question/answer type app might consist of an engine that handles the user interface, flow control, and score keeping for the quiz, but different sets of questions can be applied to the engine to create several different apps.
One of the most anticipated uses of the iPad was as an eBook reader. The iBooks app has consistently been one of the most downloaded apps for the iPhone and iPad. Prior to the Tab’s release, Samsung’s promotional videos showed an app called the “Readers Hub,” which appears to be an integrated front-end to: the Kobo eBook reader, the PressDisplay newspaper reader, and the Zinio magazine reader. The app appears to provide the basis for reading on the Tab.
However, it hasn’t been released on Tabs anywhere in the world, which I find curious.
The “Kindle for Android” app is pre-installed on the Tab and allows full access to your Kindle library and reading history (like all the other Kindle apps), but cannot display dual pages in landscape, or access video or audio enhancements like those found in the Kindle AV titles. The iBooks app, and later the Kindle app for iPad, took advantage of the iPad’s lower aspect ratio to allow users to view the device in landscape and to view eBooks as two pages rather than one. However, the Tab’s increased aspect ratio might be useful in showing dual-page magazine and newspaper displays because they don’t typically impose page borders.
In addition to the Kindle app, there are also Android versions of the EPUB-based eReader apps from Barnes & Noble and Kobo that work just like the iPad versions. There are also several free eReader apps available from the Android Market such as Aldiko, Laputa, Wordoholic and FBreader. A common thread with all of the free apps is the ability to read non-DRM EPUB files. Most will allow you to download books from sites such as Project Gutenberg and Feedbooks, and many include the animated page flip made popular by iBooks.
A major downside that I discovered when using my test set EPUB file in the Tab’s various reader apps, is that none of them support the HTML5 audio and video elements that enable multimedia in eBooks on iBooks and Kindle for the iPad. While the use of HTML5 is technically invalid, iBooks has opened the door to its use and many publishers are beginning to develop enhanced eBooks with HTML5 elements. Also, next Spring’s update to the EPUB standard should incorporate these elements. To me, it seems prudent to begin adding these capabilities to the eReader programs now in order to better compete with iBooks and iPad…which brings me to another difference between the iPad and the Tab.
The iPad has iBooks which enable highlighting and take full advantage of the iPad’s functionality. The Tab doesn’t currently have a comparable flagship eReader app. Perhaps the Readers Hub will fill that void, but I have not able to find any announcements about its planned availability.
So, is the Tab the iPad Killer?
Probably not…yet. At least not for publishers. It is, however, a very serious contender in the tablet market and the first Android-based tablet to really give the iPad a run for its money. This means that publishers have yet another platform that they need to pay attention to.
The good news is that Kindle eBooks and EPUBs that have been created will work in the Android versions of the eReader apps. The not-so-good news is that, at this time, there doesn’t seem to be an eReader app that supports audio and video within the eBook files. However, I have little doubt that such capabilities will come sooner rather than later due to two factors: the Android development community and the upcoming additions in EPUB3.
Publishers looking to develop apps across platforms would be wise to plan the development to reuse as much content as possible while developing core engines that take advantage of each platform’s native capabilities.
The app environment is still somewhat volatile in the iOS arena, even after nearly seven months following the iPad release. I would expect that volatility to continue to a lesser degree as the device changes/matures. I would also expect continued volatility in the Android development space as Google continues to release updates to Android, including v2.3 (aka Gingerbread) which Google claims will work much better on tablet devices.
Bottom line − the Tab will usher in the Apple iOS/Google Android war into the tablet space. Android has been able to seriously challenge Apple in the mobile phone world through sheer numbers of devices supporting the operating system, and I expect the same will happen with tablets. With some maturity in the new Tab’s ecosystem and the Android OS, I expect later versions will legitimately fight the iPad for market share. So at this point, it’s “Game On!”
ADDENDUM: How Does the Tab Differ from Other Android Tablets/eReaders?
The Tab is not the first tablet/eReader based on the Android operating system (OS). The dual screen Entourage Edge and the Barnes & Noble Nook are Android-based, as are the Trend Micro Cruz tablets being sold by Borders. Yet the Tab is the first Android tablet to garner significant media attention.
There are several reasons why:
- It’s fully Google approved, meaning it has full access to the Android Market (Google’s answer to Apple’s App Store); something no other Android tablets/eReaders can claim.
- In some markets, the device also includes a phone. Though none of the US carriers have opted to enable this functionality, the Android hacking community claims to have enabled its phone capabilities.
- The Tab is available through all of the big 4 US mobile carriers, and sold by a wide range of retailers, unlike the iPad and other competing devices which were initially only available from a single carrier and outlet (AT&T and Apple).
Eric Freese is a Solutions Architect with Aptara, which provides digital publishing solutions that deliver significant gains in quality, time-to-market and production costs for eBook publishers.