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I wrote the intro to this story on an Android tablet, a 10.1-inch, Wi-Fi-only Samsung Galaxy model that Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) gave away to 5,000 of us who attended this month's I/O developer conference. Actually, that's not quite right. I spoke the intro; Google's voice-recognition technology is accessible via the keyboard. It's an interesting feature that sets the device apart from, but doesn't make it better than, Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL ) iPad.
That's what I've concluded after a week of testing. For all the talk that Android was sticking it to Apple's iOS -- and Research In Motion's (Nasdaq: RIMM ) BlackBerry or Nokia's (NYSE: NOK ) Symbian, for that matter -- I find that both operating environments do different things well. Here what works and what doesn't on Samsung's newest tab.
This robot is neither reader nor streamer
As with smartphones, it's the apps that add vibrancy to tablets, and the Android Market has plenty to choose from. Google said during I/O that more than 200,000 apps are available for download. App tracker AndroLib pegs the number at closer to 350,000. Both figures are impressive.
Yet because the pre-release Galaxy tab hasn't yet received "Honeycomb," version 3.1 of the edition of Android OS, key apps don't work on the device. The most glaring: Netflix (Nasdaq: NFLX ) . I could download and install but not use the app on the Galaxy.
More troubling were Google's omissions. Neither Google Voice nor Google Books would download to the Samsung Tab. Neither had been updated to meet the Galaxy's functioning requirements (or vice versa -- it was difficult to tell). This is what users and developers mean when they say they're bothered by the Federated States of Android. Inconsistencies create incompatibilities, and incompatibility has a way of disappointing users.
Taking the long way around
To be fair, the Galaxy does allow for streaming and reading e-books. You'll just need other apps to get the job done. For streaming, Google prefers that tablet owners visit the movie-rental website it created. Most flicks can be had for $3.99 or less for a 24-hour rental. And thanks to YouTube, I had no trouble viewing Inside Job on both the tablet and my Mac. Netflix still delivers a better experience because of its recommendations engine and the way it adds placeholders for those of us who can't finish a flick in one sitting. Otherwise, I found no discernible differences.
For reading, I love what Amazon.com (Nasdaq: AMZN ) has done with the Kindle app. In my experience, it's just as functional on the Galaxy as it is on an iPhone or iPad and has all the bells and whistles I would have hoped to see in a Google eBooks app, including the ability to bookmark, highlight, and add notes. More broadly, the app is reflective of what I believe is Amazon's strategy to bring order to a chaotic Android ecosystem.
Inside the life of a cross-OS user
Although the iPad might outshine the Galaxy in terms of beauty -- the iPad's bright screen is a noticeable differentiator when you compare the tablets side to side -- and in entertainment options, the Googly new tab offers me far more in the way of personal productivity.
My Gmail accounts and Google Calendar all work well on the Galaxy. Meebo, my cloud-based IM client, suffers some hiccups, but Evernote works great. So does Highrise, a cloud-based contact-management system from 37signals that I've come to love. Mix in tabbed browsing for quick access to research, Dropbox for file sharing across systems, and the Verizon-powered personal Wi-Fi hotspot that Google gave away at the conference, and I have all I need to work in the car line while waiting to pick my kids up from school.
Open mouth, feed beast
My Galaxy experience tells my inner investor two things. First, Android is a heckuva platform that, thanks to the cloud, has no trouble serving my needs as a Mac user. Call it disruptive interoperability. Just because I own and use Macs doesn't necessarily mean I'll eschew Android devices. The rise of the Internet gave similar life to Macs when Windows was at its peak.
Second, Web-based services are what make Google's mobile OS most useful. For this story, I used a combination of Android's pre-loaded QuickOffice Software, a Dropbox account, and Word on my Mac. No file transfers were required.
Of course, these aren't the only two factors that make Android interesting. Multitabbed browsing, true multitasking, and a speedy, customizable interface make the Galaxy and its Honeycombed peers attractive platforms for both users and developers.
But if you think about it, Google is getting the better end of this relationship. Think for a moment about how much value there is in the data that I'm feeding to Google. What is my browsing worth? My Gmail conversations? Each click feeds Google's data-hungry servers, the soldiers of its mobile empire. More data means more ads. And more ads mean more profit. Yeah, I got a free tab for attending I/O. Google is probably getting a whole lot more in return.
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