Tablets: The iPad is just the beginning


Apple's iPad helped kick off the current round of Tabletmania.

It seems like everyone wants to be in the tablet business right now. And why not. Consider this – Gartner says that in 2010, worldwide tablet computer sales will reach almost 20 million.

That’s no small market, to be sure. But next year? With the debut of more and more tablet platforms from a variety of vendors with a variety of viewpoints, things get really interesting. Like 181 per cent growth interesting. The analyst firm reckons the 2011 tablet market will hit 54.8 million, on its way 208 million units by 2014.

With that kind of growth, the market is getting a lot of attention – both from end users and from vendors in a variety of different fields.

New players

Defining where exactly the tablet fits in is challenging, considering the number of vendors trying to fit offerings into the space. Apple’s iPad clearly began the renaissance of tablet computing with its January hype-filled introduction, but since then, it’s been open season. Tablet platforms now include Google’s Android and Nokia’s Meego, with a variety of companies pumping out a variety of hardware options, from the Dell Streak to the Samsung Galaxy Tab.

And then there’s HP’s webOS platform. There’s nothing concrete from HP as of yet, but the company pulled the plug on the first generation of its HP Slate, to be built around Windows 7, shortly after it purchased Palm and webOS this spring. And now rumours persist that a webOS-based tablet will soon hit the streets.

Networking vendors – Cisco’s Cius and more recently Avaya’s Flare Experience – have also got into the fray. Their view of the “media” for a “media tablet” is a little different. Instead of an entertainment device, they’re looking at it as a natural extension of their own video-heavy unified communications offerings.

And then there’s Microsoft. Rather than the idea of lightweight, mobile-friendly tablet built on a platform like iOS or Android, the software titan’s efforts are focused on getting a tablet-friendly version of Windows 7 – and beefier hardware to support it – into the wild. There’s nothing announced yet, but Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer recently gave a clear “watch this space” message in a speech at the London school of economics.

“We as a company will need to cover all form factors … You’ll see slates with Windows on them – you’ll see them this Christmas.”

Eating notebooks’ lunch?

If the public is hungry for tablets, does that mean their appetite for notebooks and netbooks is declining? Opinions seem to vary, as pointed out by Dirk Meyer, CEO of chipmaker AMD, on the company’s third quarter earnings call.

“If you ask five people you’ll get five different answers as to what degree there has been cannibalization by tablets of either Netbooks or notebooks. I personally think the answer is both.”

Gartner’s research agrees, and in fact, sees the challenge for notebook and netbook vendors accelerating as tablet prices continue to naturally decline.

“The all-in-one nature of media tablets will result in the cannibalization of other consumer electronics devices such as e-readers, gaming devices and media players,” said Carolina Milanesi, research vice president at Gartner. “Mini notebooks will suffer from the strongest cannibalization threat as media tablet average selling prices (ASPs) drop below $300 over the next 2 years.”

Here are some other thoughts from Gartner on the size and nature of the tablet market:

  • While the market for tablets is primarily a North American one (61 per cent in 2010), the research firm sees that declining to 43 per cent by 2014 as more devices become available in worldwide markets.
  • RIM may want to take note for its WiFi-only PlayBook: Gartner sees tablets with both cellular and WiFi connectivity accounting for more than half of all tablet sales this year, on its way to 80 per cent by 2014.
  • As attention shifts from the netbook to the tablet, Gartner predicts so too will mobile phone service providers switch allegiances. Expect to see cheap tablets from Bell, Rogers and Telus for those willing to sign up for three-year data plans.
  • Gartner says it doesn’t see the tablet replacing the notebook for the knowledge worker of the future. But the tablet will become a strong “companion device” for these corporate users, especially due to instant bootup times and always-on network connectivity.
  • As it moves into the mainstream in the consumer market, Gartner said it sees the media tablet purchasing decision “will become a family purchase as well as a personal one.”