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While Apple has been dominating the tablet market, the new Android OS is likely to give it a run for its money. SRIRAM SRIDHARAN

Tablets are the craze right now. It all started when the Apple iPad came out. Wait, I hear you say; iPad wasn't the first tablet. IBM had a tablet long before Steve Jobs came back to Apple. XP had a tablet PC edition in around 2001. But that's not the point. iPad defined the form factor, specs and user friendliness for the tablet market; actually the iPhone did but you get my point.

The tablet market is much like the smart phone sector. All manufacturers have certain release cycles and one comes out with the spec standard that most others follow.

The current standard spec for most tablets this year is: A dual core processor (Tegra 2 etc.), 512MB-1GB RAM, a 160ppi and above display and so on. A few options are bound to change here and there but this is mostly it.

OS specific

But, given that hardware will be almost the same across board, the OS will govern user experience. Let's talk in general about the main tablet OS flavours before we talk specifics.

The main players are Apple's iOS and Android. MeeGo, Windows 7 and the Blackberry Tablet OS are minor contributors. MeeGo is still under development; Windows 7 is primarily a desktop OS and Blackberry Tablet OS, which will premiere on the RIM Playbook, is in the shadows.

Apple's iOS is well known. You've seen it on an iPhone or iPod touch or on an iPad. When Apple launched the iPad last spring, it came out with a special version of the iOS – 3.2. The most current version is 4.2.1 and the iPad's iOS versions are synced up to the iPhone/iPod Touch iOS versions to minimise confusion and fragmentation.

The Android OS is primarily a phone OS. It's newest version is named Ginger Bread (2.3). There is a tablet friendly version coming out soon and it is called Honey Comb (3.0).

The biggest problem with Android is that it is fragmented. There's, however, another way around this. Groups of underground hackers often release unauthorised ROMs that bring the unreleased OS to your device or bring more features to it.

This requires a procedure called rooting; the Android equivalent of jail-break, where you get access to the core system components and can mess around with them.

Integration

Apple has succeeded in integrating different features of the phone into the OS flawlessly. Mail, Maps, Calendar and Phone apps are perfectly integrated so that most third party applications will give you a seamless transition. Multitasking of applications is a little trickier, for it does not truly multitask for most applications.

An app will have one of the following background states depending on how it is coded: No multitasking; A hibernate mode; Running in the background

Most games when backgrounded will have a snapshot of the current work and retire. When called back, it'll load the last saved snapshot and resume the game. Apps like GPS will permanently run in the background to use system functions like GPS or audio.

Control

The biggest problem power users report with Apple's iOS is Apple's reluctance to give users more control over the device. There is a way around this: Jailbreaking. Jailbreaking essentially involves running software on your PC when connected to the device or on the device itself to exploit a vulnerability. This lets you run arbitrary code on the device to install an application like Cydia.

Cydia is like the App Store but with apps that do a lot more. It has plugins to run all apps in the background, install custom themes etc. However Apple creates multiple hurdles to prevent people from Jailbreaking. They patch the exploits so that they cannot be reused.

This means, for each update, the developers need to find new holes to exploit. Remember, you need to jailbreak each time you update.

The Android Market is the equivalent of the App Store. It requires a per product license that the manufacturer has to pay for. As a result, most cheap tablets omit the Android Market to save costs. If that is the case, you'll need to root the tablet to install the Market or to load the apps individually (side-loading), which is a huge pain.

However, with 3.0, most of Android's tablet worries are set to disappear. Almost all apps are streamlined to work on large screens to minimise the interface lag. The notifications, homescreens and the widget-based docking are all new and make more sense for a tablet rather than on a phone.

Apple's new iPad will receive its first actual competition from a legion of Android 3.0 equipped tablets like the Xoom and Notion Ink Adam,which will hopefully be upgradeable to 3.0.

With the updated OS, Android is set to slowly take the tablet market share from Apple iPad.

Sriram is a student at Maryland, College Park, USA.

Apple's new iPad will receive its first actual competition from a legion of Android 3.0 equipped tablets like the Xoom and Notion Ink Adam...

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