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Apple’s iPad lead will face pressure from Google and Nokia

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Chrome OS ready for market

Just as the iPhone shifted handset goalposts through its user experience and applications, not by being a stand-out hardware product, so the biggest tablet challengers will be those with modern software platforms and UIs that support and enhance new user behaviors, such as rising use of the cloud/browser and streaming. Android and iOS are adapted for those trends, but were really designed for download or hybrid models, while the new breed will overtake them in delivering a powerful and appealing cloud tablet experience.

Chrome OS is setting the bar high, early indicators suggest. It puts most of the functions of the conventional operating system into the browser, which then runs on a cutdown Linux platform. This should provide optimised running of web and cloud services, and support emerging developer standards like HTML5.

The new platform is on the verge of commercial deployment, according to Taiwanese report DigiTimes, which said the island's device manufacturers are putting the final touches to Chrome OS tablets or cloudbooks, which would indicate shipment in late November or December.

The first big name launches are expected to come from Acer and Hewlett-Packard, indicating that the initial cloudbook wave will be led by the PC community, seeking a substitute for the declining netbook category, while the vendors from a cellphone heritage will focus, for now at least, on the iPad-style tablet. Some cloudbooks are expected to have keyboards, making them more responsive netbooks, though the real disruption will come from consumer slates and new designs, not a new iteration of the netbook.

One rumour says that, undeterred by the failure of its foray into hard- ware with Nexus One, Google will launch its own-branded Chrome OS device. This might be – like the putative Nexus Two – primarily a way to showcase the user experience and gain developer support (a commercialised version of Intel's concept designs), rather than an attempt to compete with established OEMs or carrier models, bids that clearly failed with Nexus One (see separate item). Google has only said it will release Chrome OS and the associated Chrome OS Web Store in the fall.

One thing is clear – most OEMs will make tablets running several OSs, at least before it becomes clear which platforms are most popular. Dell chief Michael Dell said this week that the firm aims to release a “significant number” of tablets, in different form factors and running different OSs, next year.

This will raise an interesting situation for Nokia – how far to push MeeGo as a multivendor platform, something that has virtually failed for Symbian, and how far keep the shiny new cloud OS close to its chest, to provide valuable differentiation in the emerging devices sector.

MeeGo is here to stay

MeeGo will turn up in high-end smartphones as well as netbooks and tablets next year. Currently, its parents Intel and Nokia have quite separate channels and developer programs for the system, the former geared to Intel's OEMs, mainly from the PC world. Nokia's side has been all about its own developments rather than third parties, but this could change as it seeks to wrongfoot Google in the new devices space.

This week, the Finnish firm unveiled a project release version of MeeGo 1.1, with an updated SDK to follow in the near future. This release contains Linux Kernel 2.6.35, X.org server 1.9.0, Web Runtime, Qt 4.7, and Qt Mobility 1.0.2, with support for contacts, location, messaging, multimedia, and sensor and service frameworks. It also includes the oFono telephony stack, the ConnMan connection manager, the Tracker data indexer, the Telepathy real time communications framework, the Buteo sync framework and other components.

And MeeGo has attracted China Mobile, which has joined Telefonica this week in expressing enthusiasm for the platform as a future multiscreen platform. The giant cellco, which also joined the Symbian Foundation earlier this year, is now the first Chinese firm to sign up for the Linux Foundation, which hosts MeeGo. This reflects growing closeness between China's leading cellco – and one with increasing influence on the global operator community – and Nokia.

The operator has joined the Linux Foundation as a "gold member", which the body said "could represent a seismic step toward a re-alignment of OSs in China and the telecommunications industry". Mobile certainly brings some valuable carrier input to the Foundation, whose gold and platinum levels are entirely populated by vendors, including Fujitsu, IBM, NEC, Cisco, Google, HP and Motorola.

Mobile is interested in many Linux-based activities and has developed its own oPhone platform, which is a variant of Android. However, insiders said its primary focus in joining this Foundation is MeeGo, and it expects some of the features and user experience it created for oPhone will be included in future MeeGo versions.

Rethink Research will publish its report next week. It will forecast the size and key trends of the tablet market, both the iPad category and a far wider range of devices adopting a tablet format. It will also examine in detail the market split between vendors and operating systems, the winners and losers in the supply chain, and the impact on other product groups such as smartphones and netbooks. There will also be detailed analysis of the rise of the cloud and the devices to access it.

For information and to request an executive summary, please email Peter White on peter@rethinkresearch.biz

Copyright © 2010, Wireless Watch

Wireless Watch is published by Rethink Research, a London-based IT publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter delivers in-depth analysis and market research of mobile and wireless for business. Subscription details are here.

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