Motorola’s new flagship tablet. Photo courtesy Motorola.

The iPad has a massive head start in software and a clear lead in design elegance, but in the tablet market, it’s no longer alone. As expected, this week’s Consumer Electronics Show brings a slew of tablets. Don’t call them iPad rip-offs, either. Given product development cycles, many of these products were likely in the pipeline before competitors saw the iPad. (There’s no doubt in the intervening time the iPad has made its mark, both as a benchmark of what to be and how rivals might differentiate themselves.)

Browsing, e-books, and games lead app consumption on iOS, but music software has nonetheless pushed the envelope of what these platforms can do. Music applications are often the most deep, sophisticated, and desktop-like (as in tools like Korg’s iMS-20 and Propellerhead’s ReBirth), and they’ve been some of the most adventurous in pushing the multi-touch interface (with countless unusual controllers and experimental interfaces). They’ve also made heavier use of hardware and network connectivity, with users regularly working with MIDI and audio hardware and wireless MIDI and OSC to connect to desktop computers.

So, what are the tablets to watch? And will these see the kind of heavy use by musicians and music developers the iPad has?

Honeycomb Android Tablets

Photo courtesy Motorola.

The pitch: These devices are clearly iPad rivals, but with second-generation features (faster performance, cameras, higher-resolution screens). In turn, some or all of those same features are likely to crop up in a revised iPad some time in the spring.

Good example: The Motorola XOOM (see Android Tapp), due in the first quarter of the year here in the US with mobile connectivity from Verizon, is an indication of what’s to come. The videos are a bit dorky, from both Moto and Google, but the tablet itself looks quite nice. Motorola has also done a good job keeping up to date with OS updates on its Droid phone line. See also tablets from Asus and LG.

The hardware: Faster CPUs – while still far from desktop-class, dual core processors should boost audio processing capabilities. Faster GPUs – the NVIDIA Tegra is a serious GPU. Front- and rear-facing cameras. Higher-res screens, at resolutions around 1280×800. HD video. More hardware connectivity. (HDMI, USB, 30-pin ports, or some combination.)

The software: Android “Honeycomb” is what we’ve all been waiting for. Likely to carry version 3.0, this is the tablet-ready version of the OS.

How might music developers approach it? Initially, most won’t. Android is turning into a vibrant platform for general-purpose software development, but music developers face software that’s harder to develop than mainstream apps, yet with a potentially smaller audience and greater risk. And this whole field, iOS included, is very new. That means it’s more likely commercial music developers will focus efforts on iOS, even with new tablets. There’s a chicken-and-egg problem for music: early adopter users eager to consume music apps went for iOS, which brought developers there, which brought more users… There will be exceptions, and those few exceptions are likely to get lots of attention from Android users, carriers, and handset makers, but growth here will take more time.

Look instead for a vibrant open source community – not so much because Android is technically an open source platform, but because it’s easy to develop for and doesn’t require a Mac. Open source software should be a good fit, too, because it’ll allow a community of savvy users to crowd-source testing the wide array of Android phones and tablets out there. With phones alone, the payoff was limited, but with tablets, that could change. And that in turn could eventually lead to more commercial development.

How might musicians use it? The iPad has proven itself as a music platform, but I expect some musicians will snap up Android tablets, too. Faster processing speeds will give these platforms more robust sound-making capabilities, and at what looks to be competitive prices. Tablets in general work well as touch controllers for music apps and they’re great for reading (and soon, I suspect, editing) music notation. Free software like Pd, Processing, and OpenFrameworks will open up sophisticated sound and visuals. New capabilities in the browser could mean the web browser could turn into a tool for collaboration, a control surface, or a recording environment. And these machines could make nice, low-profile portable machines in place of a laptop, particularly if hardware connectivity is available. (See “lingering questions.”)

Versus an iPad: It’s all about the software. Android tablets should have competitive touch displays, performance, and hardware quality. But the Android OS can still be uneven for developers in terms of performance. And forget about “fragmentation” – more devices can be good; often the issue is odd device-specific bugs. On the other hand, Android could prove to be a more flexible platform, offer hardware choices that appeal to certain music applications, or provide better hardware connectivity. The simple truth right now is, we don’t know. But viva competition.

One simple difference: I expect Bluetooth MIDI will be very doable on the Android tablets. (There, at least that’s something that you can predict.)

Versus a Laptop: Tablet form factors and touch interfaces are more appealing for live performance and collaboration. They still lag in maturity and horsepower, however. Laptops have easy hardware connectivity, are far more capable of audio processing tasks, have more mature, tested designs, and generally deliver more bang-for-your-buck. That remains significant competition, and explains why commenters on this and other sites can be so skeptical of the tablet hype, even given the potential of the new designs.

Bogus claims: Android developers (Google and third parties alike) tout the “first” software to be developed “specifically for tablets.” It’s supposed to be a slam of the iPad as a giant iPhone, but these devices are still based on the Android platform. Worse, the consistency between iPad and iPhone interfaces is generally a good thing. The real issue is quality of design, one app at a time. That’s been especially true in music, as developers work – with varying degrees of success – to re-imagine these platforms as musical instruments. So I call marketing BS.

Lingering questions: The big questions all have to do with the new Honeycomb OS. While Android is open source, it’s anything but transparent – developers are usually the last to see new OS versions, and Google doesn’t say much in advance. As a result, we haven’t seen what Honeycomb will look like to developers. That leaves gaping questions, in particular, about hardware connectivity, and how developers may be able to make use of new ports for USB, HDMI, and the like. I’m also concerned that OS upgrades may be as spotty on the Android tablets as they have been on phones.

The other question: price. Will WiFi-only tablets be available, to rival the popular offering from Apple? Or will you only be able to get a $500 Android tablet after you sign a two-year data agreement with your mobile carrier, in turn limiting availability of the tablets in different countries? (Yuck!)

Windows Tablets (and Linux?)

The pitch: This one’s easier. These are basically PCs in tablet form factors. Want the horsepower and software of a laptop, but with multi-touch input and a slim, tablet case? This is for you. (See also the Indamixx tablets, one Atom-based, one Core-based – they take this model, too.)

Asus is making Android tablets, too, but they’re also making Windows tablets – with beefier Core processors and Wacom tablet input. Photo courtesy Asustek.

Good example: Asus’ EP121 (see Engadget) has a Core i5, Wacom stylus, and Windows 7. It’ll cost around $1000, but then again, you get performance that rivals a laptop and you don’t have to sign a mobile contract – not a bad deal.

From detachable keyboards to sliders to separate keyboards, Android and Windows tablets alike will come with keyboard options. Photo courtesy Asustek.

The hardware: Core-architecture Intel processors, more RAM, big SSDs. Some will have stylus input, in case you don’t like finger painting.

The software: Windows 7. Expect Linux alternatives to crop up quickly, too – and since this is essentially a PC, this is a better candidate for running Linux than the Android tablets.

How might music developers approach it? I have no idea whether Windows and Linux developers will take note of these machines, but if I were them, I’d consider one of these machines as my next laptop – especially as some will come with easy, detachable keyboards so you can actually code on them. On one hand, developers don’t actually have to do anything – because they run Windows (and probably Linux), existing desktop software will “just work.” On the other hand, desktop UIs can be kind of a mess with touch input.

Again, I think the open source development community might actually experiment first, even before commercial development becomes as viable as it has on iOS. If you use a tool like OpenFrameworks, you can simultaneously target this machine, an iPad, iPhone, and an Android device, all with native audio processing (using something like Pd, even), and OpenGL-accelerated graphics.

How might musicians use it? I’ll bet money we’ll see someone go out with Ableton Live on these machines. If it’s desktop software, it’ll run on these computers. The key is watching to see if Windows and/or Linux developers find ways to build touch-savvy apps. If commercial developers don’t, it’ll still make a killer machine for carrying around Pd or Processing or OpenFrameworks contraptions.

Versus an iPad: For a simplified, elegant, touch-centric design, there’s no contest. This is Windows running on tablet. On the other hand, this is a tablet that acts like a laptop, so for performance and desktop-class apps there’s no contest, either. And while Apple has some USB support via its Camera Connection Kit, it sure is nice to have normal USB ports here on the side. Real stylus input also isn’t available on the iPad, and having used the stylus doodads that are supposed to work on the iPad, I bet stylus lovers will choose this.

Versus a Laptop: Here’s where it gets interesting. Finally, people who like laptops won’t have to give up on touch input, especially as some of the new tablets will have keyboards. Of course, if you don’t care about tablets or touch, or you want a laptop that runs Mac OS, this isn’t terribly relevant. At least your choices aren’t as restricted.

Lingering Questions: There’s really only one big, ugly question: will anyone buy these? I think there are tons of reasons for musicians to prefer the laptop-style design with its extra horsepower and standard USB ports. The general market, though, is another matter.

Also, PC reliability has been all over the map, so as with any of these hardware offerings, we’ll have to get hands-on experience to know just how viable these machines are.

And Now, We Wait

Apple’s iPad remains the one safe bet you can go buy today, but in the coming weeks, that will change quickly. I think competition is healthy, not only for people who want alternatives to iOS, but for dedicated iOS users, too. And a big design challenge for software makers and (ahem) publishers will be making sure that the stuff we make works on these different platforms, so people with iPads and people with Android tablets can make some music together.

Stay tuned…

  • Steve Elbows

    One other factor to watch out for with the windows tablets is heat. Cant tell how hot these things will get yet but the previous gen of windows tablets and ultra-mobile pc's were utterly ruined for me by this issue, along with weight. It really does not take much heat at all to make the experience quite horrible within a fairly short space of time. Mind you this wont be an issue if you are planning to use the device in a way that doesnt involve holding it much.

    Interesting times ahead for sure, I broadly agree with your expectations about the pace of Android music software development, though there is always hope that we could be totally wrong about this stuff.

  • Peter Kirn

    Heat, absolutely – good point.

    I'm still bullish on Android development. I think it's just going to wind up boiling down to seeing more commercial development on iOS and more open source development for Android — and not for *any* of the obvious reasons, but because the *model* makes more sense for music apps in each case.

  • Nice to see tablets coming of age a bit, I've loved tablets since getting my first convertible 4 years ago for college.  I mainly use them for notetaking, but I keep waiting for a killer touch music app.  I'd love to see something similar to ableton live, but with much more touch friendly features.  I've tried some PD development on my own, but the built in PD objects aren't the most touch friendly and only support single touch.

  • 23fx

    repeating myself but so  awaiting a W7 slate that can run stand-alone AND remote another PC/MAC as a wireless screen, for upgradability, and to get beefy host ressources, use some real daw like usine or ableton, with all the possible hardware/software already avaible.
    (like cpu hog VSTS, large streaming samplers, multi io soundcards,midi hw controllers ect.. working out of the box)

    then Usine on it and BAM. remote any app via OSC/midi with custom personal adaptativ setup and multitouch UI or even 
    do all in Usine with it's unmatched seemless genius modularity.

  • Peter Kirn

    @23fx: There's no reason you couldn't do that with any of the Windows slates now in the pipeline, using either an OSC/MIDI control app or even, if you really wanted, a remote desktop app. (The same is true of the Android tablets and, for that matter, iPad.)

    @Jordan: The idea would be just using Pd as a sound engine, not trying to use its UI.

  • @Jordan: "I’d love to see something similar to ableton live, but with much more touch friendly features."

    Check out the Electrify app for iPad:

  • 23fx

    yes, definitely, but  my wish would be a
    real wireless video transport, at full rez and framerate with no latency, exactly as would be a real monitor, not some sadly ulta laggy actual  VNC solutions, with also  the multitouch datas being transfered by wifi or usb straigh to the host computer, wich no
    manufacturer seems to really have considered yet.

    that would mean virtually this slate could be connected to any beefy computer, runing any OS, with any multitouch UI app, the Core host beeing uprgradable for cheap, and the 'display/slate' unit still being able to run standalone for simple stuff, without beeing obsolete one year later..

  • @Peter I like the that idea, I've tried a few different interface overlays, like GriPD, but are there any windows touch oriented control GUI apps that you know of?

  • FieryLungs

    Is it just me or does the whole "versus a laptop" point moot? Aren't there cases and plugin/wireless keyboard options enough to mimic the mixed blessing of the screen being hinged to the top of the keyboard?

    Oh and +1 for the heat concern altho I expect this to get better once solid state drives get just a leeeetle bit cheaper.

  • Miguel Marcos

    The iPad has some nifty apps so far, for sure. There are still hurdles. The apps, for the most part, are monotask. You can't pipe different signals to different tracks at the same time, you're only really controling and supervising one app/task at a time (even if there are apps that run in the background, there's no way to manage these unless you switch to them, there's just one window), and so on. And Apple, being Apple does some unexpected things. Whie they included MIDI in 4.2, which is awesome, they reduced the power available through USB in the dock to levels that render USB mics and other devices that draw useless. I think there's still a lot of room to grow and improve.

    On the Android side I noticed the below from IK Multimedia on their FB wall today.

    "Tim Conrad Please tell us that you are announcing an Android app coming soon at CES. Pleeeease….
    IK Multimedia No, we are not. The latest update to the Android OS that was supposed to allow the low-latency audio that we require has not proved to be viable yet, nor is it widespread amongst the user base. There may even be more issues with it related to low-latency audio so we still analyze and watch for now."

    I found this disappointing. I want competition out there. I assume it will get corrected at some point but it appears that audio production is not high on Google's plate.

  • Steve Elbows

    Regarding the heat issues, I would hope things are already somewhat better than when I tried a windows tablet and umpc some years back. It was just seeing that video preview of the slate, and where the vents are positioned, that got me groaning and anticipating woe.

    Sad to hear about the Android latency issues, I dont yet fully trust Google to properly judge what compromises they can make or what stuff they really need to polish well to compete with Apple, but I expect they will get there in the end and I do want choice & competition.

    Im really happy with many of the iPad audio apps right now, its been a great start. I certainly agree about the monotask issue that Miguel mentions, there have been a number of occasions where I have suddenly felt like I am just playing with a toy, but then I realise that there is actually some new potential here via the old notion of 'less is more', its refreshing to focus in on the basics and to be constrained sometimes.

    When it comes to more powerful & complex software such as full on DAWs, Im actually happy enough with the 'just use the tablet as a control surface' way of doing things. In great part I think this is because there is a lot more work involved to make a traditional desktop UI into something that is a joy to use on tablets than some people think. I tend to get the most out of the iPad when I just have a few simple controls on the screen, with multiple pages of such controls if I want to have access to quite a lot of stuff. Multiple xy midi control pads is one of my favourites, simple but effective, easy to control, precise and fun. I remember tryin to achieve this using an old windows version of logic on a windows tablet quite some years ago, and it worked but the need to use a stylus at the time rather spoilt the fun.

  • Em Wilson

    I love touch screens, they're great interfaces, BUT… I can't bring myself to purchase one base don reports of Chinese workers suffering from degenerative nervous system disorders die to some of the toxins involved in the process of manufacturing touch screen devices. I'm not a crusade here, I just can't bring myself to buy another one (I have a Droid X phone) after hearing about how environmentally toxic these things are to produce. And since it's a pet peeve of mine when people dont' source this sort of thing… .,

    I pretend my PC or Atari ST are more environmentally and living being friendly, but deep down inside I'm nearly certain they're not. Where's the line, at what point do I give up my NS10's because the wood the cabs are made from are endangered – and how do I deal with my participation in causing it to become endangered?

    Ah, the perils of a postmodern world.

  • Peter Kirn

    @Miguel: I understand IK's frustration with Android, but I'm not sure their specific objection is well-informed. 

    Android 2.3 does not promise lower-latency audio; that's simply not true. The closest it comes is this:

    "The platform provides a software implementation of Khronos OpenSL ES, a standard API that gives applications access to powerful audio controls and effects from native code. Applications can use the API to manage audio devices and control audio input, output, and processing directly from native code."

    Native access to audio doesn't necessarily mean lower latency, because – as I've confirmed with several Google engineers – Java isn't adding a significant amount of latency in the first place. Native access is terrific, in that it makes audio programming more convenient, but not as a way to reduce latency.

    Google isn't promising lower latency in the OS because they can't; my understanding is that this is a feature of the driver stack.

    AmpliTube is a tough use case; as a live effect, latency is even more significant. This doesn't rule out Android for other audio applications, and I think upcoming hardware, not OS updates, is probably the best hope for improved audio performance. So IK and other developers should take that message to handset makers doing the actual integration work and not just Google. As Asus, LG, Motorola, and others try to differentiate their platforms – and compete with Apple – they may begin to be receptive to these arguments. It's a tough upstream paddle dealing with those companies, but it's worth at least shouting at them.

  • Peter Kirn

    @Em: I agree – it's a troubling issue, and one we have with all electronics. At the least, while I keep up with shiny, new things, I hope we can try to be an advocate for getting long use out of electronics rather than disposing of them, and maximizing what you do with them. And incidentally, your older electronics were produced under more rigorous environmental standards. I think things have gotten worse. I hope we do find ways to start to demand improved working conditions and environmental standards from these manufacturers. It's possible, it doesn't have to mean the end of the electronics business, and it's necessary. 

  • airmanchairman

    Though there are many others, the blog site&nbsp ; is one of my favourite ports of call to witness the awesome development effort that is going into smart mobile devices in general, and the iOS ones in particular. The pace is breathtaking, and the iOS lead in this regard staggering.

    As knowledgeable guys on this blog like Peter and Miguel have noted, it's all about the sound subsystem of the mobile OS as regards latency, Core MIDI support and other esoteric factors, in addition to the quality of the hardware vis-a-vis audio support.

    This is one of the applications of smartphone and tablet technology that is pushing hardest at the envelopes of performance and function, and the future is bright in the sector, though quite clearly apple-shaped for the time being.

  • RichardL

    iOS music apps are not the open and shut solution for mobile music creation. To their credit by putting a very complete and performant audio stack on iOS devices from the start Apple created the foundation for a thriving niche of fun and entertaining music-oriented apps. But those apps tend to be insular and productive workflows can often be challenging. iOS's restrictions on interoperability, multitasking, plug-ins, and license compatibility pose significant barriers towards more complete and productive workflows. Quite often the best solution is just plugging in patch cables between one or more iDevices and more complete audio production tools like a mixer or a DAW running on a laptop. (e.g. Gorillaz' new iPad album.)

    We are still in the very early days of the mobile music creation revolution. I have no doubt there is a lot of innovation we have not yet seen in many untapped areas on many different types of devices and OSs, and it won't all be Apple flavored.

  • Su-Preme MPA – Sample based music production app.

  • Peter Kirn

    Good grief. I'm getting sick and tired hearing about issue 3434.

    Native code access to audio is coming in 2.3 (and presumably Honeycomb on tablets), via OpenML. That would mark the issue closed.

    Worse, though, that issue misunderstands the *cause* of latency issues, which incorporates things like firmware performance.

    It's not to say Android audio doesn't pose some challenges. Quite the opposite: by consistently pointing at the wrong causes, developers are unlikely to see better results.