Android isn’t always Android. Despite the fact that Google’s mobile phone operating system is ‘free’ the real benefits - in the form of Google’s services such as Google Maps, Gmail and the Android Marketplace - require that an Android device conforms to Google’s standard.
An official Google license is the key to cloud integration and a range of other Android goodies.
This hasn’t necessarily been a problem until recently. A manufacturer not only needs to design hardware and software, but they need to go through expensive testing and qualification to build a device that is approved for use over the airwaves. That barrier to entry has meant that very few Android phones have been launched that don’t have official Google licenses - it's only a tiny additional hoop to jump through.
Tablets with Google goodies
The slow build up of Android ‘tablets’ has made the issue of naked Android vs a version of Android with Google Apps a much more pertinent one.
We've seen a host of tablets that are little more than Android powered Mobile Internet Devices (MIDs) that have been available in China for a few years now. These devices often don’t have proper integration into Google’s services, instead using their own ‘App Stores’ and the like.
There have only been a handful of ‘proper’ Android tablets, with full Google services, announced.
Samsung’s Galaxy Tab is the flashiest of these, but there has also been Dell’s Streak, Viewsonic’s ViewPad and Toshiba’s Folio-100. Of these only the Folio-100 is set to launch without 3G functionality (although a second version will be available with 3G).
Despite being marketed as tablets, the Tab, Streak and Viewpad are all actually giant-sized telephones.
Android is not a tablet OS
Google hasn’t actually released a tablet Operating System. Despite the marketing, Android is currently designed for phones, which means it expects to connect to a Sim card and 3G radio inside devices. These components allow the devices to comply with the licensing requirements for Google’s services.
Additionally, software written for Android at the moment is done under the assumption that 3G and GPS are present in the hardware of an Android device. That may be a certainty for a phone, but not for a tablet.
The honeycomb of a true tablet OS
It seems that the real delay on Android-based tablets comes down to the wait for Android 3.0 (Honeycomb). This will be the first version of Android tailored for tablets, and we assume that it won’t require a 3G radio.
If rumours are true, Google is also working on another version of Android codenamed Gingerbread to supersede Froyo (Android 2.2) on smartphones.
Android isn't the only Google OS in town, of course. Chrome OS is still in development and its original target platform of netbooks could be expanded to include tablets. It's tough to ascertain just how Android and Chrome OS are destined to co-exist.
The release of Honeycomb seems far enough away that companies like Samsung and Dell see the benefit in launching a smartphone-style Android tablet now, rather than wait a few months for a ‘real’ tablet Operating System to launch.
This means that initial Android tablets are pricey - thanks to all that wireless hardware under the hood. More importantly, though, the user experience isn’t necessarily what an true Android tablet will deliver. Current versions of Android work well enough on these tablets, but we're still waiting for the tablet version of Android to appear.