2011 will be the year of the tablet, or at least the year that everyone says is the year of the tablet. There will be more than enough devices, but will there be enough reasons to buy them?
The question isn't when more tablets are coming, but what people will do with them. Analysts are predicting explosive tablet growth; combined with all the hullabaloo over Google's Chrome netbook, and suddenly questioning the viability of the PC has become a favorite spectator sport.
The tablet is certainly more than a novelty, but it is hardly a threat to the traditional PC. It is a luxury and a convenience, and for those whose jobs entail merely content consumption, the tablet may suffice -- suffice being the operative word. The rest of us will convince ourselves that the tablet makes us more productive. No, not without compromise; not without an extra layer of software; not without some unnatural acts of digital gymnastics.
The tablet is primarily about extending information in a palatable mobile experience. That it also can deliver e-mail and render documents and draw is simply the frosting on the cake; it is to the PC what dessert is to main meal.
We recently surveyed our audience and found a surprising amount of skepticism. Only 4% strongly agree they'll give tablets to at least 10% of employees; more than half those surveyed think not. The sentiment is equally strong on whether there will be niche uses. Most readers believe tablets will be a nonevent. Only 5% seem to be thinking of (or already) building tablet apps for customers. That doesn't mean people won't have tablets, it just means IT isn't factoring them into the employee arsenal.
By the way, of those who consume this site with mobile devices, nearly half used iPads (65% come through some sort of mobile device made by Apple). Most of the rest come from Android devices, while RIM and Windows mobile users are practically non existent.
Beyond The iPad
Android's looming fertility will serve to solidify the tablet's role, not upset it. For most of 2010, there was only Apple, and Apple only offered two choices: take it, or leave it. The first popular Android tablet (Samsung Galaxy Tab) is as different from the iPad as Google is from Apple. While its freedom and possibilities are theoretically luxurious, it's incomplete.
By that I don't mean its features are incomplete. It's plenty fast, its screen resolution is pleasing enough, and it has plenty that the iPad doesn't (two cameras, for instance; and its browser can render Adobe Flash). Given enough time and the dozens of OEMs expected to release Android devices in early 2011, it's only a matter of time before Android tablets, like Android Smartphones, creep up on Apple's hegemony.
But it is precisely how bountiful Android tablets will be that will restrain the platform's initial popularity. The choices will require some consideration: the ability to hold a 7-inch Galaxy Tab in one hand is intriguing; the promise of enterprise lock-down on a Cisco Cius, combined with built-in telepresence probably warms the heart of the concerned CIO; perhaps the 5-inch Dell Streak at $100 (with contract) is good enough.
When the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) kicks off 2011, device makers will bring every permutation. NEC Corporation, for instance, will unveil a dual-LCD-screen tablet called LifeTouch -- two 7-inch touch screens, each running separate applications; it will also include a stylus pen. HTC, Motorola, Acer, Toshiba and others are also expected to land in Las Vegas with tablets in hand.
But there are challenges beyond the immobility that too much choice can bring. For example, there are no Android tablet applications, only Android applications. In some cases the experience is unsatisfying. Apps like NY Times get letterboxed. Others, like Pandora, USA Today and Tweetdeck are a shadow of their iPad versions. Still other applications, like the Wells Fargo app, manage to work exceedingly well. With the Samsung tablet's cameras, I was hoping for more opportunity to do video chatting, but all I could find was Tango -- a fine application, but only one of my contacts also had the app.
There's no Flipboard or Aweditorium on Android (both big innovative hits on the iPad). Office apps like ThinkFree and dataViz worked well, and although you can pinch and zoom, the 7-inch screen isn't where spreadsheet residents will feel at home (to be fair, they won't feel all that comfortable on an iPad either). The Android marketplace will catch up (Netflix and Hulu Plus, please), but for now it's not even close.
It's not just that most developers make Android versions of applications second priority; it's that they have the added challenge of designing for various screen sizes (5-inch, 7-inch, 10-inch), or, in the case of dual screen devices, ensuring their applications can take advantage of those screens. Even when the mobile world is predominantly web centric -- and it will be -- developers will have to detect and account for screen size and resolution differences; luckily there seem to be tools in HTML5 to do so.
Once the market is flooded with Android tablets, and RIM ships its Playbook, and Palm and Microsoft tell us their plans (there are rumors of a Windows Phone 7 tablet at CES, and rumors that refute it), it will indeed become clear that web-centric mobility has the potential to be the great leveler. An app will be an app. It will work in any browser, on any device, with any carrier, and inasmuch as it can enable productivity, or simply optimize content consumption, the choices will revolve around device and user experience innovation.
Fritz Nelson is the editorial director for InformationWeek and the Executive Producer of TechWebTV. Fritz writes about startups and established companies alike, but likes to exploit multiple forms of media into his writing.
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