Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Tablet Future

A long time ago in a post far far away (OK: back in 2007), I mentioned that I viewed my first generation iPhone as a small tablet computer. Nothing about the 3G, 3GS. 4. or for that matter the Android powered Captivate really has changed my thinking about that. They are all still 3.7 to 4 inch tablet computers.

What has changed is that there are bigger tablet computers available now. The current king-of-the-sales-hill is of course the iPad. The Android powered tablets are going to come on strong this next year, so that by the time of the iPad 2, there will no doubt be 15 Android options. Like the iPhone to Android market of today (Winter Solstice Holidays of 2010 now) in total sales it is almost a sure thing that Android will have more unit sales.

Pick a number: About 8 million iPads to less than 2 million Androids right now (Including Dell Streak, Samsung Tab, B&N's Nook, and various others) will easily be 30 or 40 million tablets next year, with probably just less than half that market going to the iPad.

What that means is that, like the iPhone, all the cool cases and gadgets and tablet accessories are going to collect in the iPad end of the pool. I am working on this post right now on my first gen iPad, using the "ZAGG/mate with Keyboard", a birthday present from my wife.

The ZAGG folks were pretty smart with this design. Not to be too much of a commercial for them, but the built in bluetooth keyboard will sync with more than just an iPad: the design of the tray is such that I can stick my Samsung Captivate in it, and use it instead of the iPad. (Update: Bzzzt: I could if the captivate would, but it appears to not support bluetooth keyboards, at least not in 2.1. Who knows if there will be a 2.2 or not... ) That means that when I get an Android powered tablet someday, even if the ZAGG device won't work as a case, it will work as a stand / keyboard.

Most accessories are far too iPad specific though, and won't enjoy the cross compatibility. Apple ensures this in part by continuing to use the 30 pin connector when a mini or microUSB connector would do.


One of the things that surprised the market was not that the iPad existed at all, but that when it came out it was already so mature as a product. Other than a wifi issue with the initial 3.2.0 release, it was feature rich, stable, and fast. Battery life was amazing. Lore has it that the iPhone was actually an outgrowth of the tablet research, and that Apple decided to introduce it first because they saw a bigger market for such a converged tablet / phone device. I would call them visionary except that I used to watch Star Trek in the 1960's, and ST:TNG in the 1990's and most everything the iPad is was there already.

On the other hand, I had a Pen Windows 1.0 device from Grid in the early 1990's, and have seen most every tablet attempt by MS and their partners since then, and the iPad was the first usable tablet device. It is not just concept. It is implementation, and there Apple really kicked it.

One look or test drive with the current crop of Android powered tablets, and it is clear that Android is not far behind. The Galaxy Tab is too small for me, but it drives nicely. A 10 inch version of that, at a better price point than the current unit would already have me switching. Say a 10 inch screen with better DPI than the current model, 64GB or better (or enough SD slots to let me add that much), for 700 USD or less. Wifi Only, although if it supported the Clear "4G" WiMAX technology that would be nice.

The killer feature will be when a tablet has better than 300 DPI in a 10 inch or larger form factor. FWIW: I seriously doubt that iPad 2 will have a Retina display, at least not in 2011.

I already have a small tablet: two of them in fact. The 7 inch midpoint does not hold any value for me personally. If I just had a feature phone, not a small tablet, then the 7 inch form factor as personal organizer would be very interesting.

Archos will have a 10 inch form factor out soon, but early reviews of it are that are that while it is inexpensive: Half the price of an equivalent iPad, it also feels like it will not last very long. I expect Dell, Acer, Samsung, and others will get into the 10 inch form factor game soon.

The other problem of the current crop of Android powered tablets is that that Android will not officially support the tablet form factor until version 3.0 is out later in 2011. We have seen 2.3 drop here at the end of 2010, but only on the Nexus 2. Many smartphones/mini-tablets, like my Samsung Captivate, are stuck at 2.1 or even older.

The problem is primarily the way the apps support the much larger 10 inch screen size: Current apps for the Android platform were mostly designed with the smaller 4 inch screen size in mind, and they do not all scale up well. Maybe the 7 inch form factor is a hedge against this limitation.

It is an easy fix, especially relative to getting all the other things right about a Tablet OS: being usable for touch and gestures is harder. Ask MS. Windows is still a mouse and keyboard OS, and while there is supposed to be a Windows for tablets someday, it won't be until there are hundreds of millions iPads and Android tablets out in the wild. If it is anything like the Win7 phone, the first release won't be feature complete either, meaning the market will have even more time to run away from them.

But is it a Computer?

The number one question I get: Can my tablet replace a laptop. Answer: yes, but it will be an Android one that does it, at least at first. The reason is simple and age old: Android tablets are not trying to keep other products in business. They won't need a tether. You'll be able to back them up and restore them to USB connected devices or the Cloud (I view Apples MobileMe as a hedge against the cloud). Solid State memory will continue to drop such that todays 64 GB tablet is tomorrows 256 GB tablet, and then the next years 1 terabyte tablet.

For right now, on the iPad, I can go days without a sync, and really only need a power cord. I chaff against the restrictions placed on me by the only browser available, but for short periods of time it is tolerable. Still, Chrome with Flash will be a welcome addition someday, if not on the iPad, then on the Androids that will follow it.

Yes: I know that Opera is available, and that there are other browser shells that front end Safari: none of them fix the simple fact that a lot of the InterWebs is Flash based.

As a book reader, a web surfer, a text composer, a research tool, a reference manual, and a non-flash media consumption device, the current crop of tablets are already replacing laptops and other special purpose devices. When dual core processors, integrated graphics, bigger solid state disks, and higher resolution screens arrive over the next two years, the question of "Is it a real computer" will give way to "When will laptops die or be marginalized?". We used to ask when laptop sales would eclipse desktop sales, and they did. This will be no different.

The current Macbook Air is a clue to that future. As much as I would love to have one, I can not justify having both it and an iPad. The Air is more of a "real" computer (though what that means is already becoming blurry), and would be my choice for an office computer, when rigged out with an external display, and external storage to stage all the things that do not fit in its 256 GB max disk size. My non-Air, 13 inch Macbook has a 500GB drive, and a 640GB drive external, and still I stage things off to other locations. I have a bad virtual machine habit.

Therein lies the upcoming split: as large laptops grow in power and screen resolution, they will continue to replace desktops: My office Dell M4500 laptop is more powerful than any computer I personally have access to other than the new 27" iMac quad core. They are not too far apart spec wise, and came in at about the same price point. As the high end of the laptop eats away at the desktop, the laptop lower end will be chewed away by the tablet.

All the things that are wrong / substandard / less than optimal on the current generation of tablets will be fixed within the next two years. Androids, not having to keep a 30 pin connector alive will support USB 3.0, SD cards, and all manner of standard storage and connections. They will leapfrog the iPad in that regard, and what will be interesting to see is if Apple responds with lockdown and lockout, or open up and set the iPad free to be the full blown computer is has the potential to be.

The market is Apple's to lose, but if the computing history of MS is any guide.... well, it will be interesting. If they stay in the game, then we'll all win.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

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