CES 2011: The Tablet Reboot

We're having a do-over. 2010 was meant to be the year of the tablet, but it turned out to be something of a flop unless you love iOS. Predictions that we'd see dozens of Android slates turned out to be only partially true: yes, there were tablets a-plenty, but recognizable brand names were generally absent and the flush of OEM models seldom made it onto store shelves. Samsung pushed ahead with the Galaxy Tab, and succeeded in showing us that, while there's room for more than just the iPad on the market, you really need to have a team of software engineers on hand to fettle Android in order to claim your place.

That's not so much Android's fault – the OS has been steadily climbing in popularity, and Android-powered smartphones are turning into best-sellers on various carriers – but proof that you can't take a smartphone OS, slap it onto a big-screen device and expect it to be anything like as elegant. Expectations of low pricing didn't help; Android may be free, but as Toshiba found to its cost with the Folio 100, you can't cut quality corners on your budget slate and expect the market to stomach them.

With Honeycomb, Android on slates should feel less half-hearted, and it seems the sensible manufacturers have decided to keep their development money in their pockets, allow Samsung to mop up the earliest of early adopters, and strike the iPad hype machine when Google has the tablet-centric OS ready. With that expected in February or March – though some wags are suggesting Honeycomb will launch even earlier, at CES in fact – it puts us on the precipice of a new cavalcade of touchscreen tidbits. Acer, ASUS, Dell, LG, Motorola, MSI, Samsung and Toshiba are among the big-brand names expected to show off new slates, and that's before you get to the smaller companies with their own big ambitions. It'll require more than a little imagination, however; with Honeycomb not yet ready for the public, we're going to have to take the word of manufacturers that their CES demo units (running earlier versions of Android) will translate to more cohesive experiences when they finally launch.

That's not to say Android is the only way forward for tablets. HP is expected to launch its first webOS-based slate in 2011, and we're hoping the company follows in Palm's footsteps from two years ago and surprises everyone with a legitimately interesting CES reveal this week. Windows 7, meanwhile, is also tipped to be flexing its tablet ambitions, with Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said to be bringing models from Dell and Samsung on-stage in his CES keynote. Whether that's enough to give Microsoft and its OEM partners any sort of edge remains to be seen; Windows 7 has its uses, but when it comes to finger-friendliness it's low on the list.

If the year's delay has helped at all, it's in showing manufacturers – and a perhaps naive public – that slapping the internet on a touchscreen display isn't quite enough. With little more than Star Trek PADDs to go by, the early assumption was that by stripping away the keyboard we'd immerse ourself in a heady soup of finger-flicked internet access and be content. Instead, it's become clear that a tablet works best – and that people are more likely to spend money – when it fits into an ecosystem of media. Vizio's integration of its freshly-announced VIA Tablet and VIA Phone is one example of how that might work, but there's still plenty of room for a manufacturer to step in and show everyone else – Apple included – how it can be done best.