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The soul of a tablet is surely its Operating System.

With two major OS choices and a plethora of minor choices, it is a key factor in selecting the best tablet.

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A Buying Guide to iPad and other Tablet Devices :  Part 3

Operating Systems and Applications

If you already have an Android powered phone, you might recognize this screen shot as being from an Android powered tablet device.



Part 2 suggested a tablet's screen was its most important hardware attribute (and there are plenty of other important attributes to follow).  However, the tablet's operating system is the feature that gives life to the hardware, and its application programs are the features that apply actual use to the features.

Your choice of operating system is vital, because it then defines which set of applications will be available to buy (or get for free) to add to your new tablet device.

There are two major and dominant OS choices (Apple's iOS and Google's Android) and a mix of other minor OS choices too.  Read on to understand the implications of your OS choice.

Operating System and Applications

What use is a tablet to you if it has no applications?  None whatsoever.  The type of operating system (OS) the tablet runs on is of paramount importance, and directly related to the OS will be the availability (and cost) of applications (apps).

There are currently two dominant operating systems.  Apple makes its iOS, which is available only on its iPad range of tablets.  Google oversees the development of Android, which is available on many/most of the other tablet devices.

Both iOS and Android have a vast library of applications for you to choose from, and probably way more than you'll ever need.  In both cases, the operating systems are originally designed for phones with smaller and lower resolution screens, but most of the apps originally written for phones will run on tablets too.

There are also a growing number of apps for iOS that have been redesigned and rewritten to take advantage of both the extra pixels and the extra space on the larger iPad screen - the greater physical size allows for a whole new design of program interfaces.  When Android based tablets become more common, and when there is some standardization on Android tablet screen sizes, we can expect similar evolution of design for Android apps too.

At present, due to it being the first tablet released, Apple's iOS and its apps probably have an advantage over Android, but this is likely to be a very short term advantage.  Android based phones are already probably outselling iPhones, and it seems reasonable to expect that the broader range of Android based tablets will at least draw close to iPad sales in the year ahead, and may again overtake them.

Other OS Choices

There are other potential operating systems too.  Hewlett Packard bought Palm and after various false starts and announcements involving tablets that might be using Android or even Windows as an OS, it seems they will now be releasing a tablet in 2011 based on Palm's webOS.  But there are not nearly as many apps available for webOS, and not much developer interest in writing or converting apps for webOS.

RIM, the makers of Blackberry phones, have just announced their own tablet, the Playbook (a strange name for a device presumably targeted more to corporate than leisure users).  This Playbook is to be based not on the Blackberry OS but on a different and incompatible OS that RIM had purchased a while ago.  There will probably be even fewer apps available for this new OS with no hardware history behind it.

There are other OS options potentially available, too.  The slumbering giant that is Nokia occasionally mutters about its new Meego OS, but the first phone based on that is not likely to be seen until 2011, and who knows when a Meego tablet might appear, and what apps might be available.

Meego is a Unix derivative, and there may well be other Unix derivatives offered on tablets too, and they may potentially be able to run some/many existing Unix applications too.  But it is unknown how many applications would be available for them, particularly applications custom designed for the comparatively small screen size and weak processing power that is found in a tablet.

Oh, then there's Microsoft too.  Maybe their Windows 7 in some form could run on a tablet, and/or maybe their Windows Phone 7 software might also adapt to a tablet.  But neither OS seems to be featuring prominently in any credible tablet solutions at present, and if you were to choose Windows 7, while there are plenty of regular Windows applications, there are very few that would work well in such an underpowered processor, such scarce memory and disk, with a touch screen rather than keyboard/mouse, and at affordable prices.

For most people, the choice of OS boils down to either iOS or Android.  We would greatly hesitate before choosing a tablet based on any other OS.

Future Upgrade Path

This is a hard issue to evaluate - who can truly predict the future.  But it is relevant to note that not all Android devices have been able to accept each new iteration of Android as it has been released, either due to hardware limitations within the device, or apathy/disinterest/marketing decisions (ie encouraging people to upgrade hardware to access the upgraded software) on the part of the manufacturer.

To be fair, Apple's original iPhone can not be upgraded to iOS 4, and its earlier second and third generation iPhones can accept only partial rather than complete iOS 4 upgrades too, primarily for hardware reasons.

If you are able to get any sort of understanding about how a particular tablet manufacturer will respond to future OS upgrades (and nothing is more certain than there will be regular and substantial upgrades/enhancements to tablet operating systems over the next few years) that might help you better understand the future of your device.

Android upgrades will probably be free, iOS upgrades may or may not be free - a clue to that is in how Apple has handled upgrades to its iPod Touch devices.  Apple has always given free upgrades to iPhone users, presumably because Apple derives some sort of ongoing revenue from iPhone users and their AT&T account activity, but has typically charged $10 or so for each major release offered to iPod Touch owners.

Part of a multi part Buyers Guide to iPad/tablet devices.  Please visit the other parts of this series - links at the top right.

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Originally published 29 Sep 2010, last update 21 Jul 2020

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

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iPad and Tablet Buying Guide 1 - Basic Issues
2 - Screen Issues
3 - Operating System & Applications
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8 - Online and offline memory/storage, CPU
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Bonus :  Excel Spreadsheet

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