Where are the good iPad competitors?

I've been using my iPad quite a bit out and about recently as a primary notetaker. It never fails to draw somebody's attention when I do. Given the tech-centric circles I operate in (some of whom like Apple stuff, some of whom are indifferent and plenty of whom are downright hostile), somebody inevitably asks me about the limitations of the device.

I'm not going to say that the iPad doesn't have its limitations, and indeed there are some things that downright annoy me about it that Apple could change with a change of policy and a snap of Steve's fingers.

But the thought that's been striking me more and more as the questions come thick and fast over the months is this: It's been more than six months since the iPad was unveiled to the world. Where on earth are the alternative tablets?

So far I've seen Microsoft's Courier tablet fail to leave the "incubation" stage. Dell has the Streak, which it's launched in the UK and shown off to plenty of local tech journalists (I'm not one of them), but it's a half-sized unit on Android 1.6 with an unclear release path, if indeed it will be released here at all. I've seen and had testing time with a to-be-Kogan-branded Android/Windows tablet, but that product never actually made it to market. I've seen a Huawei S7 Android tablet with a resistive screen that looked OK from a distance, but had me cringing within minutes of trying to use the thing.

That wasn't Android's fault, by the way; matching it up with a resistive touchscreen rather than a capacitive one was always going to be a recipe for disaster.

I've even seen tablets that are trying ever so hard to actually be iPads. Mid-last week, I was in the offices of CNET.com.au (disclosure: I freelance heavily for CNET and at launch was the site's editor) and they were kind enough to let me have a small play on a a "fake" iPad that they've now published a review of, which you can find here.

Having had a couple of minutes to test the device — most of which was burnt away waiting and waiting and waiting for it to start up — all I can say about the Editor's Rating is that it's perhaps five or six points too generous. That was one ugly system, and a terrible fake iPad.

The thing is, it arguably shouldn't be. It's got a lot of what the iPad itself could use. MicroSD and USB storage built in. Full access to the file system. I could definitely see a use for those in a future iPad, and I could see a competing device using those factors as a key point of differentiation against the iPad.

If only I could see them, because so far, they don't exist at all. I'm honestly not sure why. You could pre-order an Axon Logic "Hackintosh" Tablet — but who knows when that'll actually exist? "Soon", according to Axon Logic's web site. Try as I might, I can't find a date for "Soon" on my calendar. Equally, you could wait for Asus' Eee Pad line to come out ... but that's apparently not due until next March!

Given Apple's general mantra of annual product releases (not that I know anything more than you; remember "Apple does not comment on unannounced products", after all), that means that system will compete with whatever Apple comes up with next. Whatever that is, and even if that is a "new" product at all.

That's the crux of why I want some decent iPad competitors, by the way. At the moment, there's none, or none worth consideration. That's bad for the competitors, obviously, but it's also bad for Apple's consumers. Folks like you and me. Without a push in the competitive space, there's much less impetus for Apple to innovate and re-engineer the iPad.

I'd expect the next iPad to perhaps carry a camera, maybe inbuilt USB or card reader, and maybe be a little thinner or lighter. But if Apple doesn't feel that the market is pushing it that way, who knows whether we'll get a heavily-rebaked iPad with all the trimmings, or just the crumbs that Steve feels are best for us?

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