Tablets At CES: Honeycomb Promises Sweetness, Threatens Microsoft

Two words were on everyone's lips today when it came to tablet talk: Honeycomb and LTE, the next-generation much faster network billed as "4G." Honeycomb is Google's first tablet-optimized version of its Android operating system, which will run on tablets like the Motorola Xoom, LG G-Slate, and Asus Eee Pad Transformer. Honeycomb isn't fully operational yet so it's hard to say how well these tablets will perform; early demos show a user experience that looks similar to the Palm WebOS "deck of cards" metaphor for switching between applications.

The Honeycomb tablets have features the iPad doesn't (yet) have, like front and back cameras for video chatting and HDMI outputs for connecting your tablet to your TV. Add in the superspeedy LTE capabilities, which we'll see in tablets in the second half of 2011, and here's what you get: better video and better gaming experiences. Think Skyping and G-chatting with less latency, watching videos with less stuttering, seeing more and more video on sites like Facebook. Not to mention more complex, real-time gaming: Nvidia demoed a concept for cross-platform gaming where you could play a game on your Android tablet with a friend on a PC or Sony PS3 game console.
 
Here's what people weren't talking about: Microsoft slates. And that's because they didn't announce anything revolutionary in that arena, the well-reviewed 12-inch Asus Eee EP121 notwithstanding. Microsoft's strategy, which they successfully demonstrated, is to show Windows 7 on a variety of PCs, including those with ARM-based chips (a big deal as Microsoft severs the fraying Wintel bond). They showed Windows 7 on different form factors, including the nifty but familiar double-touchscreen Iconia laptop from Acer. It's a reasonable approach to broaden the conversation beyond tablets, but pushing Windows 7 on tablets doesn't give Microsoft an iPad-killer. At their press conference this afternoon, they reiterated their strategy to push Windows 7 on tablets and other PCs and reserve Windows Phone 7 for "small screens." It's too bad; Ninja Fruit on Windows Phone 7 looks like a lot of fun. I guess the world will have to wait for Windows 8 tablets.
 
In the meantime, Google's Honeycomb poses a much bigger threat to Microsoft than it does to Apple. Of the 24.1 million tablets we expect US consumers to buy in 2011, the majority will still be iPads, but consumers looking for a cheaper, feature-rich alternative will turn to Google, not Microsoft.