Everyone and his gadget-loving cousin seems to be arguing these days about whether the iPad will be another hit for Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) , or a dud like Apple TV. As far as I'm concerned, Apple ensured the device's success the day that it decided to have the iPad's operating system be the iPhone OS rather than a modified version of its Mac OS. Likewise, Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) ensured itself an uphill battle against Apple the day it decided to support its developing Chrome OS for the tablet market in addition to Android.
Apple's smart decision
The brilliance of using the iPhone OS to run the iPad was twofold. First, it makes using an iPad feel nothing like using a personal computer. Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT ) has taken the opposite tack over the years with its Tablet PC software, which does little more than tinker with its bloated, buggy Windows operating system so that it can work with a touchscreen; and the results (or lack thereof) are plain for everyone to see. Giving the iPad an interface that was built from the ground up with human fingers in mind, rather than a keyboard and mouse, means that Apple will avoid the same pitfall.
Secondly, choosing the iPhone OS made sure that millions of iPhone and iPod Touch owners who have built large app collections would have a strong incentive to buy an iPad. Right off the bat, these people will have a sizeable collection of software that they can port over (albeit without perfect formatting) to the device using iTunes. And as millions of additional consumers buy an iPhone or iPod Touch for the first time in the coming years, this base of potential buyers will grow.
Google's questionable decision
Nonetheless, if Google had decided to limit its tablet operating system support to Android, you could basically make the same arguments in its favor. Android, like the iPhone OS, was built with a touchscreen interface in mind. And it also has a growing base of apps and smartphone users that it could leverage.
I'm sure that the iPad would still have an early lead, thanks to Apple's hype machine and the iPhone OS' larger base of users. But as Android gains momentum -- its smartphone share has been growing by leaps and bounds lately -- and leading PC manufacturers such as Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ ) , Dell (Nasdaq: DELL ) , and Acer release Android tablets, the iPad would have a serious competitor on its hands.
But instead, Google is also supporting Chrome OS, which was initially devised as a netbook PC operating system, for the tablet world. Compared with something like Windows, Chrome, which is due out later this year, will clearly be a lot simpler and sleeker. But all the same, its PC roots are bound to affect its user interface.
And just as importantly, Chrome OS won't have any ability to run Android apps initially, which are on the verge of totaling 40,000. In fact, with all of Chrome's apps meant to be web-based save for its browser and media player, I don't think you can expect an app experience anything like the iPad's. Especially not for resource-intensive apps such as games.
Google seems to be taking a spaghetti-on-the-wall approach to the tablet market: Throw some operating systems out there, and see what sticks. Chances are that this strategy will guarantee Apple a huge lead in the market's first years -- a lead that it might never relinquish.