Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols: Are Android tablets ready to take on the iPad?

Do you remember April 2010? That was when the tablet market sprang to life.

Tablets had been around for more than a decade, but hardly anyone outside of certain vertical industries (utilities, for example) had noticed them. When Apple released the iPad in April 2010, everything changed.

The iPad wasn't destined for some niche market; it was an object of desire. Apple claimed that it sold 300,000 iPads on the first day that it was available. No other vendor had technology that could come close to competing with iOS on the iPad.

Many tried. There was the now largely forgotten Moblin operating system, RIM's PlayBook OS, Intel and Nokia's short-lived Meego, Chrome OS and, of course, Android, most promisingly realized in the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1. None of them was good enough to seriously compete with Apple, in either 2010 or 2011.

But now it's 2012, and at long last, we have a contender: Google's Nexus 7, running Android 4.1. Until now, the most successful Android tablets were actually e-readers, like Barnes & Noble's Nook and Amazon's Kindle Fire. The Nexus 7 is something much more.

While we don't have hard numbers yet, the Nexus 7 has been selling at the kind of frantic rate not seen outside of Apple devices. Thanks to Android, the Nexus 7 has certain advantages in software selection, customization possibilities and built-in apps. It also has a significant advantage in price: The Nexus 7 costs $200 less than the iPad 2.

Beyond the Nexus 7

If this were just a battle between the iPad and the Nexus 7, I wouldn't be writing this column. I happen to like both devices, and I could argue in favor of either one. I prefer the Nexus 7's smaller size, but I can certainly understand why someone else would want the larger iPad, especially with its Retina display (which, of course, makes the price difference even larger).

No, the real game-changer is Android 4.1, known as Jelly Bean, which will also power Amazon's forthcoming Kindle Fire, which will be much more than a mere e-reader, with its quad-core processor, front-facing camera, micro USB port and bigger, better display. We can also expect to see Jelly Bean in a new model of the Nook, and then the floodgates will open. I expect to see many good Android tablets with 4.1 under the hood, in sizes ranging from the now popular 7 inches to an iPad-matching 10 inches. And good or bad, all of them will be priced below the top-of-the-line iPad.

As we head toward the 2012 holiday season, I expect iPad to finally have serious competition from Android tablets. I suppose it's possible that Microsoft, with its Surface and Windows 8 tablets running on x86 processors and Windows RT tablets running on ARM processors, could be a contender as well, but I don't foresee that. Android and its various hardware vendors have just spent the past two years showing how hard it is to compete with Apple in the tablet market; Windows is too late to the game to compete in this round. It might catch up later, but right now the story is Android.

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been writing about technology and the business of technology since CP/M-80 was cutting-edge and 300bps was a fast Internet connection -- and we liked it! He can be reached at sjvn@vna1.com.

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