The War Over The Tablet Operating System And The Opportunities For Startups

This year is the year of the tablet computer at CES …and the year the war broke out among makers of tablet operating systems.

The question I have is whether the chaos and conflict will create opportunities for startups.

Most every major consumer electronics vendor has been talking up iPad-like tablets at the nation’s largest tech gadget show taking place this week in Las Vegas.

Motorola unveiled its Xoom, an Android powered machine, and Samsung demonstrated a sleek Windows-based touchpad with a keyboard that slides out when needed (pictured left).

Sharp, not to be outdone, displayed a prototype of its Galapagos, though it said it hasn’t yet selected an operating system or a price (pictured below). Equally vague on price, Toshiba announced it widely anticipated Android machine, which also doesn’t have a name. Even laggard Sony said quietly it was developing tablets, though the company failed to offer even a picture.

With all the hardware under development, software vendors are beside themselves. Microsoft couldn’t help itself and went on the attack Wednesday, promising a version of Windows 7 running on the ARM based chips widely used in tablets and on which Google’s Android operating system and Apple’s iOS mobile operating system already run.

The move is both one of strength and weakness. Microsoft realizes it needs to support more than just x86 chips from Intel and AMD. But it clearly has had some success in the market, with Samsung, Lenovo and other vendors incorporating Windows in their products.

Apple, riding high on the success of its iPad, has challenges of its own. The company needs to evolve iOS to be compatible with the Windows dominated computing world and to address how it might combine iOS with the Mac OS X.

Android, the upstart, is facing its own chores as fragmentation has occurred among its different versions.

So where does this leave startups? With the operating system business in a competitive fervor, vendors need the support of developers and may be willing to cut good deals. More so, tablets are beginning to be productivity-focused, as well as media consumption devices. They will need productivity apps, especially those able to run across multiple platforms.

Yes, the war has begun. But that is when alliances shift and opportunities emerge.