The tablet market is just getting going and the iPad is way out in the lead. Android has been coming on strong with the release and ongoing refinement of Honeycomb. It hasn’t been a smash hit, but the business of selling slates has been looking like a good one. The price of tablets has been a little high, but there has been moderate adoption. Then came the $99 TouchPad. Consumers are liking the idea of a $99 tablet, but this is an unsustainable price. Will Android tablets see a hit from this flood of uber-cheap tablets?
Then we have the prospects of an honest-to-goodness Android port on the Touchpad. Projects are already starting up to get the little green robot running on HP’s hardware. But it’s not going to be all smooth sailing. Could this too be a hindrance to Android tablets? Let’s go over what the $99 TouchPad is going to do to Android.
Consumers were wary of spending $500 or more on tablet already. With the domination of the iPad, people have made it clear that an Android (or webOS) device selling in that same price range was not a good option. Tablets like the Motorola Xoom have seen repeated price drops. At around $400-350 a tablet like the Eee Pad Transformer has gained some fans.
Now here comes a tablet selling for $99. Granted, this is a fire sale. All stock must go, and all that jazz. But most users don’t necessarily know that. Average people are buying this $99 tablet that, despite its foibles, is a passable iPad/Android alternative. In a year or two when tablets are more top of mind, users might be looking for a similar deal.
Apple set the bar when they launched the first iPad at $499. Now HP has inadvertently lowered that bar. It’s probably not all the way down at $99, but it’s going to be harder to sell a potential buyer on a non-iPad tablet that costs anywhere near $500. So what’s the new sweet spot? $300? $200?
Neither of these is going to be sustainable in the long run. When a new tablet is torn asunder by any of a dozen sites, we learn what is inside. Most tablets clock in around $300 just for the components. That isn’t factoring in development time, software tweaking, or marketing. Apple is maybe the only maker that can afford to drop the price, and that’s only because they have a really magnificent supply chain. But they won’t drop the price, because they’re Apple.
A “high-end” tablet will likely continue to be priced at $400-500 at launch. That’s the only way things are sustainable. But Android OEMs are going to have to get entry-level devices ready to go. Manufactures will need to develop devices in the spirit of the Acer A100 (but cheaper). We can’t be sure how Android device makers will react. One thing is certain, though. A $99 TouchPad has altered the pricing structure for tablets.
Android on the TouchPad
A lot of hardware companies are betting that consumer are going to want Android tablets. The thing is, a lot of those potential customers might have just bought one for $100. The TouchPad currently runs webOS, and HP has even said they will update it for a while yet. But work is already starting on an Android port.
As we told you yesterday, the fine folks at RootzWiki are already gathering resources to start porting Android to the TouchPad. They will start with Android 2.3.x Gingerbread as a way to get familiar with the platform, then they will move on to Honeycomb, but more likely Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS) by that point. This has been dubbed the TouchDroid project
In order to evaluate the TouchPad’s Android aspirations, lets first take a look around the device. There are no physical buttons aside from the redundant home button. The TouchDroid devs have indicated that in their initial Gingerbread build they will have to roll their own on-screen controls. We expect this solution to be a bit of a kludge; Gingerbread is not designed to effectively run apps with on-screen buttons.
You may be wondering why they don’t just go straight for Honeycomb. The big issue here is that Honeycomb is not open source. Sure, there are ways to yank the code off a retail device and pull it apart, or use the SDK as a base. There is a Nook Honeycomb build after all. But it’s not ideal, and the TouchPad is not an Android device by nature. The TouchDroid project is probably hoping for ICS to drop soon.
The next hurdle will be that screen. The TouchPad uses a 4:3 resolution (like the iPad), and almost all Android tablets are widescreen 16:9. The only Android tablet of any note that is 4:3 is the Vizio Tablet. This device runs Android 2.3 with a heavily modified interface. A lot of work was done to make it run correctly on that display. Android 3.2 added better support for different size screens, but since it isn’t open source, the prospect for 4:3 displays is murky.
3.2 also added official support for the SoC chip in the TouchPad. On the inside, the TouchPad has very similar hardware to a number of Android devices. The heart of HP’s disowned offspring is a Qualcomm APQ8060 dual-core chip at 1.2GHz per core. The APQ model is nearly identical to the MSM8260, the only difference being the lack of 3G connectivity in the TouchPad. the MSM8260 is the chip used in the HTC Sensation and other phones. It should be no problem to get the necessary software support for the Touchpad on this front.
From there, it gets a little more uncertain. Android may not have driver for some of the more esoteric components sourced by HP. Android tablets might use different accelerometers, gyroscopes, touch screen controllers, cameras, and brightness sensors. If there is no place to get the drivers from, developers will have to create them. That’s going to take time, and the results might not be ideal. As an example, the TouchPad uses an LG panel with Cypress Semi touch controllers. We couldn’t find an Android tablet that uses those parts.
We have no doubt that development community will get an Android ROM out for the TouchPad at some point. Ubuntu Linux is also working (kind of) on the TouchPad, so we have hope that things will progress quickly. Knowing that HP plans to continue updating the TouchPad for now, would you install Android, or stick to webOS?
Lead image via anandtech