What Honeycomb Means for Apple and Microsoft

Overall tablet sales for 2011 are estimated in the tens of millions, and many of those new units will run Google's tablet-specific mobile platform, Honeycomb. Though a number of the OS's new features and functions—from a new graphics engine to support for a variety of device sizes—appear specific to slates now, some are sure to filter down to smartphones, bringing greater Android unification across device types. And while Apple's (AAPL) iPad may have the current lead in the tablet market, Honeycomb puts Google (GOOG) in an excellent position to catch up, much as Android has done in competing with iOS. But Apple isn't the only competitor Google's got in its crosshairs: Microsoft (MSFT) is also likely to be affected, from both a mobile and a desktop computing perspective.

Much of Honeycomb is a bit of a catch-up effort from Google, as Apple's iOS has a nearly 12-month head start in the tablet market. And while many Honeycomb features are similar to those available in iOS, a few standout functions actually jump past Apple's tablet platform:

Honeycomb supports multiple cameras, including 3D stereoscopic image recording. And its ability to provide Google Talk users with a front-facing camera for video chat is a direct strike against Apple's FaceTime.

Android Market apps can be purchased and sent over the air to either a Honeycomb tablet or any recent Android smartphone. Apple's iPad has a built-in app store, just like Honeycomb tablets do, but doesn't support app discovery and purchase over the air from a computer.

Honeycomb supports various screen sizes, which offer hardware makers a way to differentiate their tablet against Apple's "one-size-fits-all" iPad. With the relative success of the older Samsung Galaxy Tab, Google has proved there's a market for smaller slates.

An increased number of Android tablets strengthens Google's advertising base. Put another way, every Honeycomb tablet sold is another lost opportunity for Apple's iAd platform, which started with initial success last year but has been hampered by lackluster performance since.

Threat to Microsoft

Honeycomb affects Microsoft both from a mobile perspective as well as that of the desktop. Microsoft revamped its smartphone platform with Windows Phone 7, but as of yet, it has no mobile tablet operating system aside from the tablet integrations within Windows 7, which is not designed from the ground up for touch computing.

Without a true, light mobile operating system, Microsoft is left to stand by and watch iPads, and soon likely Honeycomb tablets, sell in the millions. Microsoft is already facing pressure on the desktop side as smartphones outsell traditional computers, since more platform revenues will be flowing to other companies. Yet Microsoft is only just beginning to fight back with Windows Phone 7, and has yet to mount a consumer tablet challenger. And therein lies the danger.

Simply put, Honeycomb looks to be the mobile platform and ecosystem that Microsoft should have built by now. Instead, Microsoft is behind and will be fighting among Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), Research In Motion (RIMM), and others for smaller tablet market shares, if and when it ever creates a lighter version of Windows for tablets.

Also from GigaOM:

Research Note: What Google's Honeycomb Means for Apple and Microsoft (subscription required)

Verizon Wireless Wants to Be Your Landline

Apple Beating Kindle for E-books—in U.K., at Least

Obama to Silicon Valley: Can I Get a Side of Innovation, Please?

Green Overdrive: Cruisin' in an Electric VW

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.