The iPad and the legion of tablet computers that will follow it in the coming months are dramatically thinner and lighter than previous tablet efforts, and rely on touchscreens for user navigation. What they do have in common, though, are derivative operating systems.
Microsoft approaches the slate world with a variant of its traditional desktop OS, Windows, and Apple's iPad shares a smartphone OS with its iPhone sibling.
In other words,tablets have hand-me-down hearts. And, say critics, that's a problem.
Rather than starting from scratch to build a new OS tailored to an entirely new device category, manufacturers instead have largely chosen to morph existing software. The result, many feel, is a compromise that short changes a new device form factor that has the potential to "change of world," as Wired recently pronounced.
You may not care about what makes your device tick, but its OS is one of the main factors that determines how easy your computer is to use and the kinds of things you can do on it. This is as true for tablet computers as it is for their bulkier brethren, laptops and desktops. For now, the big dog in tablet circles is the iPad with its iPhone-based OS.
"Apple, in my opinion, really half-assed it with the operating system they installed on the iPad," said Derek Johnson, CEO of Tatango, a mobile group communication service. (Read more iPad news.)
"This operating system should have been at the very least a hybrid operating system that took certain parts of both the laptop and the mobile phone operating systems. The iPad is great for consuming content, but not for creating it. I think this is what happens when you don't build a completely new operating system for a completely new genre of computing."
Breathing down Apple's neck for bragging rights and potential market share are a raft of next-generation Windows-based tablet computers like HP's Slate, which will be available midyear. Acer, Dell, Lenovo and others will also join the slate caravan in the near future. And rumors are swirling that Google is creating a tablet that will run its Android operating system.
Convenience over innovation
So why haven't slate computers gotten their very own scratch-built OS? The chances of a purpose-built slate OS being developed were slim from the get-go. Both users and manufacturers like the comfort of the familiar and already paid for, said Steven Savage, an independent IT program manager .
"A custom tablet OS is a great idea," Savage told TechNewsDaily. "But I actually don't think we'll see them per se. People prefer a known system. They'll prefer an operating system that is an extension, variant or straight port of a known one." This holds true for applications (apps) as well. Users want apps that are familiar.
It's the same on the manufacturering and development side, Savage said. Companies have sunk costs into developing their current OS. Likewise for developers who have invested heavily in creating OS-specific apps. Unless there's a strong incentive to develop something new, they will elect to extend, combine and modify existing platforms.
There's also the issue of expediency; nobody wants to be left behind in a market that's rapidly expanding. During the California gold rush, manufacturers didn't head back to the drawing board to develop entirely new pickaxes.
"In this economy, sure is better," Savage said.