My new TIME.com Technologizer column–now a Thursday feature at the site rather than a Tuesday one–is a recap of the state of the tablet wars as of last week’s International Consumer Electronics Show. There were dozens of upcoming models at the show–new Android models, RIM’s still-a-work-in-progress BlackBerry PlayBook, dark horses like the Notion Ink Adam.
I had fun checking them all out–but I also left Vegas convinced that it’s going to be tough for most companies to build truly distinctive tablets, particularly if they choose to join the Android army. Hardware-wise, most of the tablets are already beginning to blur. Motorola’s Xoom and Toshiba’s yet-to-be-named tablet both looked respectable, but they also looked remarkably similar, except for the fact that the Xoom will come with Verizon wireless service and the Toshiba will be Wi-Fi-only.
Until someone comes up with a brilliant feature that hasn’t occurred to anyone yet, most tablet hardware is going to feel like most other tablet hardware. Manufacturers can fool around with screen size, but the industry seems to be converging on two choices: seven inches and approximately ten inches. (Any smaller and it’s not really a tablet; any larger, and it might be too heavy to tote around–although I personally like the idea of a huge honkin’ tablet.) If a company builds in two cameras and a memory-card slot, it’s just adding features that will be standard equipment on nearly all new tablets. It can go for a particularly thin design, or a surprisingly lightweight one, or one with an especially capacious battery, but in the end, it’ll probably strike a balance between weight and battery size that isn’t radically different from the one its competitors make.
Software is different. The iPad and the PlayBook are both so interesting mostly because their creators designed operating systems and interfaces designed with mobile, touch-oriented computing in mind. And I remain hopeful that the WebOS tablet(s) which HP will likely announce on February 9th will be promising enough that the billion dollars HP spent to buy Palm looks like a smart investment. But all of these examples are outliers, and only the iPad has proven itself to be an excellent product and a booming business.
If the market ends up dominated by Android tablets–which looks like the probable scenario right now–I worry that it’ll be as bland as the desktop PC business. You know the scenario: Lots of similar-looking boxes running nearly identical software, and an emphasis on price-cutting and superficial induatrial-design differences rather than creativity. I’d love to be proven wrong, though. Maybe multiple software platforms will thrive indefinitely. Maybe manufacturers will customize Android in unexpected ways. Maybe they’ll come up with hardware features that the competition can’t match. Or wouldn’t it be cool if all of the above turned out to be true?