February 21, 2011 | by Andrew Kameka
At Mobile World Congress 2011, HTC announced its long-rumored Android tablet – the HTC Flyer. Running an Android 2.3, tablet-optimized version of Sense UI, the Flyer is a one-of-a-kind device. But after seeing the Flyer following close contact with the first crop of Honeycomb tablets, I couldn’t help but wonder if the Flyer’s rare qualities would also be its undoing.
Mobile World Congress featured several devices running Android 3.0 (Honeycomb), the official version of Android sanctioned by Google as being ideal for tablets. There were also demo’s of apps that will require Honeycomb to work, or at least provide more features for 3.0-capable devices. Factor in Google’s own improvements like a new YouTube app and Movie Studio for editing videos, and the Flyer looks far less impressive than it would had the device been announced just four months ago.
There’s a chance that being behind competitors could have the surprising benefit of making the Flyer more distinguishable. When moving from one booth to another at MWC, it became obvious that the three major Honeycomb slates – the LG Optimus Pad, Motorola Xoom, and Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 – were the class of the show; however, they were mostly the same device with the exception of a few hardware specs and one or two features. Someone could choose a Xoom over a Galaxy Tab 10.1 and not miss much in the process.
However, no one who will mistake the Flyer for any of the Honeycomb tablets, and that may be a way for HTC to do something unique. HTC has merged Android with its Scribe software, a new stylus-friendly platform that allows users to write notes and annotations on-screen or highlight content in a unique way. Yes, Honeycomb is visually more appealing than Sense, but stylus support is a feature that no other tablet on the horizon offers. I witnessed an impressive demo using the Evernote note-taking app and can picture artists, filmmakers, or educators using this to edit concepts in some form or another.
Innovation takes time…that you may not have
Android manufacturers have moved away from creating stock experiences because they see custom skins as a way to differentiate from the competition. HTC has adopted that strategy for tablets as well, which may lead to a major long-term problem: HTC will constantly be chasing the competition.
LG, Motorola, and Samsung each have the latest software capable of running the best apps designed for tablets (and a dual-core processor to run them). HTC has plans to deliver Honeycomb in Q2 2011, but I don’t place much faith in that assertion considering the device is also set to launch in Q2 2011. The fact that the company hasn’t even perfected the tab experience on the Gingerbread-based Flyer shows that buyers of this device could see the drawn-out wait period for updates that have infuriated many Android phone owners.
The HTC Flyer may be a hit with consumers willing to overlook the comparatively old software and lesser hardware specs. But it could just easily prove to be a fatal flaw that puts HTC – a leader in Android phone development – in a position in which it is constantly playing catch-up. The hardware of the Honeycomb tablets exhibited at MWC 2011 outpace the Flyer, and the software on those devices may still be ahead by the time the Flyer gets an upgrade to Honeycomb.
It’s quite a surprise that HTC may go from trailblazing Android phone maker to trailing Android tablet maker.