The tablet market is properly taking off now and we’re finally beginning to see people using them out and about. It’s clear that people like this new form factor, especially the smaller tablets for mobile use and the larger ones for use at home. One of the issues with tablets though is the need to have them updated regularly. This stems from several different things that sets a tablet operating apart from a desktop OS.
Primarily among these reasons is that people have become used to the fast-paced, quickly-moving world of smartphones. Every few months when you wander into your local mobile phone ship there’s something brand new to look at, usually in the software. These things move very quickly and people are now beginning to demand updates. For evidence of this just look at how many people get all excited about forthcoming updates to Windows Phone or Android. This never would have happened when a smartphone was just a tool in everyday life. Now these devices are part of our lives and, as such, we’re spending more time with them.
This brings me on to the second reason. With a desktop OS you’re spending almost all of your time not interacting with the operating system itself, but with your installed software. This software is written by many different companies and everything looks and works very differently between vendors. Take Microsoft Office, Adobe Reader and Sony Vegas Pro for examples of three common pieces of software that couldn’t be more different to one another. This means that you’re constantly challenged with different interfaces and ways of working.
With smartphones and tablets the major operating system companies have tried to rectify this problem by imposing strict developer guidelines specifying what an app should look like and how it should work. The aim being that all third-party apps should seem to be extensions of the operating system itself, that everything on the handset or tablet should work in the same way, and that it would therefore be much easier and simpler to use. The downside of this approach, as great as it is, is that people can get bored with everything looking and working the same way quite easily. Which, given the problem it’s designed to solve is pretty ironic.
The other problem though is that because smartphones and tablets are, by their very nature, much more limited in the scope of the software and applications you can run on them. It’s far too easy to have explored the entire operating system and everything that handset is capable of in a short period of time. This makes it much easier for people to get the “seen that, done that” feeling and get bored until the next upgrade comes along with new features.
This problem then passes back to the operating system and hardware manufacturers themselves. With Apple, being in control of the entirety of their devices, it’s a simple matter of waiting the annual update. If you want to buy a tablet today the iPad should still be at the top of your list.
With Google though it’s not so clear cut. Already there are many different versions of Android available on tablets, which causes some confusion among consumers, and updates don’t depend on Google at all. Because the operating system is open source, the tablet (and smartphone) manufacturers modify the core OS themselves and then have full responsibility for updating that OS. This has caused a problem with those hardware manufacturers being unwilling to upgrade the tablet OS on devices to a newer version.
From their perspective it makes sense to do things this way. There’s no money to be made in providing OS upgrades and their core business is to sell you the next generation tablet anyway with new hardware features and a better screen. If they provide the same software version to you on your existing tablet that you’ll find on the new one then it’s a disincentive for you to buy the new hardware. There are also expensive development costs for OS updates that may not even be compatible with their new hardware. This could mean some companies see the idea as wasted money.
This gives Android tablets the shortest shelf life of any on the market as Apple, fortunately, take a very different approach. They can afford to though with each new iPad being an evolutionary update to the last and always being based on the same core hardware.
Then we will have Windows 8 tablets appearing next year. Now Microsoft have traditionally been awful at providing regular updates to core OS features, just look at Media Centre for an example of this. The company will have to change this policy though with tablets simply because the market will demand that they do. This will mean that one of two things happen. Either you’ll have an Intel-based tablet onto which you’ll get updates via Windows Updates or you’ll have an ARM tablet provided either directly through a shop or via a mobile carrier. Here I expect updates to work very much in the way they do with Windows Phone, with some delay in the update being rolled out, as carriers and hardware manufacturers have to test them, but with Microsoft in overall control of the update cycle.
As it will be Microsoft providing the OS Windows tablets won’t fall into the trap Android tablets are currently in and even if there’s only an update once a year (which is likely) it’s still comparable with the iPad and better than many Android tablet manufacturers provide themselves. It’s too early to say what the situation will be for Blackberry and WebOS tablets.
So if you’re looking for a regularly updated tablet experience for 2012 there are really only two choices currently, Windows and iOS. If you’re not wanting an iPad then and can wait until January for the beta of Windows 8 for your tablet I think it will be an operating system well worth upgrading to.