Tablets

Scouring the Great Tablet War of 2011 battlefield

Donovan Colbert take a look at the tablet contenders of 2011. Find out who has their foot in the door and who failed miserably.

In 2010, I wrote a post about why I thought the iPad would fail to win significant market share. I'm usually pretty accurate with my predictions, but I don't get 'em all right -- and I missed that one by a mile.

Anyhow, I still don't think there is anything magical about Apple's tablet device, but clearly it was revolutionary and more than just an over-sized iPod Touch. Over the last year, we've seen a growing number of different opinions about how the tablet market will evolve and what that direction will mean for the future of personal computing and digital devices in general. It's almost too much to keep track of.

Some people, like TechRepublic's Jason Hiner, remain doubtful that tablets beyond Apple's iOS-based devices have any real significant market presence at the moment or any opportunity go gain much market share. Others think that all tablets are a trend, a current fad that will eventually run a course and die out because they lack any kind of true, long-term practical function. In fact, according to ZDNet's Zack Whittaker, 1 in 4 British regret buying an iPad as a waste of time and/or money. The remaining three didn't seem much more generous in their opinion of the device, to be fair.

As for Microsoft, I don't think anyone has figured out what they plan on doing to address the current demand for tablet devices (possibly, least of all, Microsoft themselves). Microsoft seems convinced that we're all doing it wrong, and that they've had the right direction for probably the last 10 years on what tablet computing should look like.

With Windows 8 in beta, it seems like their game plan is to make their classic tablet-based computing approach look a little more like iOS and Android, while still delivering a full, traditional Windows platform under the hood. Who knows, maybe they're on to something in the long run. However, over the past year, for the first time in over 30 years, Microsoft and Intel have remained largely irrelevant and undiscussed, particularly concerning tablet computing devices.

In the meantime, while many other tech writers were dismissing Android tablets, I spent the last year digging into these devices and really exploring what they might be capable of doing for the market. The first two large names to market with Google-approved devices delivered fundamentally flawed products that hurt the consumer perception of Android tablets. The Motorola Xoom was probably the biggest disappointment, but the original Samsung Galaxy Tab was also not very good. Both were grossly overpriced and arrived either feature-crippled or lacking important features that potential Android purchasers wanted in their tablet devices.

The rest of the Android tablets at that time were unofficial products without Google support, and they required someone with pretty decent technical skill to really leverage their full potential. These off-brand devices captured some interest by those inclined to hacking and experimenting with devices, but they lacked real mainstream appeal.

So, the beginning of 2011 was pretty rough for Android tablets. By the summer, options had opened up considerably with "Google Experience" tablets (running Android Honeycomb) available from Acer, ASUS, and a handful of other manufacturers. The original Transformer was reported as the second best selling tablet on the market behind the iPad -- but the Kindle Fire, another Android tablet, might currently have that title.

While iPad 2 prices have remained fairly constant and sales have remained relatively flat, there have been deep discounts on a wide range of Android devices during this holiday season, plus Android options have arrived from Sony, Toshiba, Lenovo, and other manufacturers.

The success of mainstream tablets comes partially at the expense of the inexpensive, low-end, hacker tablets from China and other "low-rent" manufacturers like Coby. With the arrival of affordable Android tablets with the Google Experience, there's far less reason to consider these grey market alternatives.

Android does have its foot in the door, but 2011 has been a disaster for other tablet competitors. BlackBerry and HP were humiliated and sent packing. HP found that the magical price point was around half of what it cost them to manufacture the HP Touchpad. At $99 (USD), the HP tablet saw a brief period of being the hottest tablet in the world -- and the executive staff of HP had a complete nervous breakdown. HP dropped the price of their failing tablet to less than $100 and announced their intention to get out of the PC market completely.

2011 is the first time in my career I've seen a major, successful, market-leading company just completely lose it. There really isn't any other way to describe the HP meltdown. Oddly enough, this was at least partially the result of the Great Tablet War of 2011 -- and I don't think we're out of the woods yet.

As we leave 2011, there are still a lot of shoes waiting to drop in the evolution of tablet computing. Did I miss anything significant, or do you disagree with any of my observations about tablet computing in 2011? Please share your insight and opinions in the discussion thread below.

About

Donovan Colbert has over 16 years of experience in the IT Industry. He's worked in help-desk, enterprise software support, systems administration and engineering, IT management, and is a regular contributor for TechRepublic. Currently, his profession...

13 comments
fnewtz
fnewtz

Being retired and spending almost 30 years in the IT arena, I believe that tablets should be looked at the same as PCs are (for marketing purposes). Business and personal. I purchased the Thrive and will pass it on to my son (IT as well) and then purchase the Ipad3. Although retired, I still am curious and want to continue to learn. Personally, I believe the Ipad will, after a year or two, be sold in the same numbers or percentage as the Macs are today. The problem with Apple is that they are one whereas Android is many. When one group makes all the decisions, over time they begin to think they know what's best for all. When a community makes decisions, there is always disagreement and naturally, one group tries to outdo the other which results in dvancement and creativity. Apple has always been synonymous with 'graphics'. If you're an artist or photographer, then the quality of the graphics on the Apple was more pleasing. If you're just what I'll call a 'blue collar' worker crunching numbers, writing letters, etc., then the PC was for you. With first IBM followed by Dell, HP, Toshiba and others, you saw alternatives that led to lower prices. With Apple, market share mattered little. Their silicon valley egos led them to believe that theirs' was the best and therefore should cost twice as much. Now, which resulted in enhancing technology? The Apple or the PC? What about s/w? Apple or the rest? In my mind, those in the Android market should be looking at providing two distinct tablet types. One for business use and the other for what I'll call personal use. Do we really need the HDMI connection or the SD Card for personal use when it means that the user (can't get away from that term even if it is politically incorrect) has to learn how to use it instead of programs automatically being installed on and run from it? To forget about the retiree's is a big mistake on the part of the manufacturers. These numbers will increase fourfold as time goes by what with the baby boomers retiring in mass. The vast majority of them know technology and will continue to use it for email, etc. I used Skype to visit with my grandchildren and daughter yesterday. I could sit on the couch or walk around for that matter. The PC forces me to stay put. The tablet adds versatility. My spouse has the Fire and carries it in her purse. We live in the country and have DSL. When we go to the city there are numerous wi-fi hotspots we can sit, do email, check maps for shopping center locations. The list goes on. Just hope some of you young guys are still imaginative (which brings creativity). Enjoy em while you can!

AudeKhatru
AudeKhatru

I wish I could hold up my No One Knows card, like on QI. The problem right now is that no one really knows what a tablet can do, or what it should do. The iPad has sold in ridiculous numbers, and so it is looked upon as the epitome of success in the tablet market, but I wonder if the opinions put forth by the Brits (1 in 4 think is was a waste of money) would not be mirrored across the US and the rest of Europe. The iPad is limited, but still it sells...or has sold. And, the iPad is growing into a different machine than what was first released. Of course, it should be pointed out that Apple deserves none of the credit for that. The credit goes to the developers, but once you get enough units out into the market, then developers will see the opportunity to make some money and develop for it. No one can really say if there is a market for Photoshop on the iPad, but if there are a million out in the wild, then Adobe will produce a version...and hope. But, do you really want to do Photoshop on a tablet? I don't think so. Unfortunately, I don't know what tablets should be able to do either.

dcolbert
dcolbert

There is a great blog headline I should do soon. For me - Netflix, gaming, all sorts of media content consumption (movie and music files) - and content creation. Social networking. Quick browsing. A lot of the things I'd do on a phone, only on a larger, more convenient format. I've said before - ultimately, my goal is a very small device no bigger than a numeric (non-alpha) pager that would detect and interface with a number of different I/O devices from traditional displays, keyboards and mice to displays that are really tablets to headset units that are the size and shape of a smart-phone but really just a "display interface". That is the problem right now. I want to do it ALL with a single convergence device. When I get in my car - I want this pager device to detect my audio-system and connect. Through the in-car speaker I can say, "Navigate to my destination". It will find the destination and pop up a HUD navigation system. "Would you like me to drive you to your selected destination, or just provide route guidance while you control the vehicle"... Then I get out, go into the office, and the same device detects my monitors and keyboards and overhead displays. When I get home, it finds my TV and becomes my DVR and my game console and... Yeah... so... from that perspective - the "tablet" is just another INTERFACE. The universal CPU should be able to replace EVERY digital device I'm invested in now... my all-in-one programmable remote, my garage door opener, the fob for my car. The fob for access to my work - all of my PCs and other devices.

ITOdeed
ITOdeed

(nt)

gevander
gevander

I think they are a nascent tech - everybody is figuring out what they can do. One possibility for their future that I can see is as a network-connected desktop extension: A (relatively) small amount of onboard memory to be able to pull up files and do "simple" tasks; a docking station at your PC, an always on (and secured/encrypted) wireless connection to the desktop and its resources; etc. Another possibility is that, as processor and SSD tech improve, that the tablet will replace the laptop. I am sure there are more possibilities too - those are just "off-the-cuff."

dcolbert
dcolbert

The tablet form factor so naturally emulates so many other natural form-factors that humans interact with on a daily basis that it is only logical that we'll see the basic paradigm of tablet interfacing continue to grow. We are visual, spatial and touch-centric creatures. We work visually in a 3D world with objects, tools and devices. The tablet is a step in the direction of delivering this kind of experience with our PC tech. For the last 30 years we've focused on a 2D interface where our I/O was limited to non-intuitive devices like mice, trackballs and keyboards. Not that those devices do not have their time and place. They'll continue to be important ways for us to interface with our PCs. The keyboard will never be replaced as a tool for writers - because writers *write* - they do not dictate, they're not *talkers*. Now, I may have spoken too soon. If a device could read my *thoughts*, then I might be able to ditch a keyboard. Until then, though - just because a PC can listen to me and respond (semi) intelligently (Siri, for example) - doesn't mean that traditional interfaces will go away. But in the meantime, there are so many things that a keyboard, mouse and traditional display are *not* the most ideal or intuitive interfaces for, that it becomes clear that a digital tablet type device is an awesome solution in those cases. Reading and personalized content consumption of all kinds is well suited to tablets. Communications are an area where tablets excel. Low power consumption, low heat output, outrageously long battery life and standby time, instant-on - things a traditional PC can't deliver as efficiently. (And the truth is, for every gain that traditional PC tech makes in this regard, it stands to reason that tablet tech will be racing along at the same speed, Moore's law being a constant - not just limited to PC tech. So if PCs get cooler and get better batteries and quicker boot times, tablets will get even *better* at those things). People said automobiles were fads, too.

Jaytmoon
Jaytmoon

I bought the 32Gb Acer A500 about 7 weeks ago. It works well and although it's a little hefty compared to the Ipad, It is feature packed, with many more feature than the Ipad and IMHO, kicks the ipad to the curb price-wise and value for the buck. Yes, I have used the Ipad as well as a few other tablets and still I favored the Acer over them.

mhhurst
mhhurst like.author.displayName 1 Like

IMO, the ACER A500 is still one of the best bang for your buck Android tablets out there, yet get's overrun by equal, yet more expensive, mainstream Andorid tablets from Samsung, Toshiba and even the defunct HP tablet in blogs and reviews. The Amazon Fire is nice and if you are embedded in the Amazon camp, it's a great choice at $200. My oldest child purchased one recently and while it's solid, an iPad killer as some have clamed it to be before it's release, it is not. Where it shines the most is in it's integration with Amazon's cloud offerings which you would expect. But that is a double edged sword. For me it wound't require much thought to spend the extra $150 to get the ACER A500 - 16GB which does what the Fire does and more without feeling I've painted myself into a corner. I've had the chance to use a Galaxy tab and there was no wow factor that justified spending even more money. Same for the iPad. I'm not saying that either are bad, they are both quite good. But there is no logical justification for spending the extra money over what I concider equal hardware and user experience at a more realistic price for what your getting. There has been a mini explosion of company purchased iPad's at work recently. The explosion is somewhat logical as the iPads were purchased for people who will be responsible for application testing of a iOS app under development. Everyone that has gotten one is naturally excited as for most, this is their initial experience with a tablet device and probably more importantly they didn't have to pay for them. But I think they would have felt the same excitement if they were given ACER A500's. From my perspective the gap between Android Tablets and the iPad for most users is smaller then is reported by the experts. Hopefully ICS makes that gap even smaller.

toodevastate
toodevastate

I'm still waiting to find out if any tablets can run any of the production software I need the most. Surely tablet makers would like some of the production user capital? If any device can run photoshop or blender out of the box, I will buy it, no questions asked.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

It's going to be very hard not to run for my wallet at the first site of a tablet running stock Debian. The same OS across all my devices including a tablet; yessr. The Asus Slider tablet is very interesting. Hopefully that gets hacked up nicely with alternatives to Android. I don't know about running Photoshop or Blender on a tablet ever though unless tablets somehow overtake the resources provided in a desktop. A multi-GPU multi-CPU rig with a ton of ram is going to eat any tablet alive in terms of processing power. Those types of apps are probably going to remain with full workstations and pressure sensative input tablets for a long while. Still, you've gotten me thinking. I had Metasploit running on the N800 and N810 as probably the heaviest of the interesting toosl kept handy. Something like the Asus Slider with Metasploit/OpenVAS/Nessus.. topping out the heavy weights.. oh that'd be some fun squishy.

dcolbert
dcolbert

I've added an HP touch screen 21.5" display to my desktop rig. That will probably be where we see some heavy evolution in our digital interfaces over the next 5 years or so. Last night I saw a toy, it was a car from the cartoon Cars. You start an app on your iPad, put the toy on the tablet, and you can drive around and interact with a scrolling landscape. But the iPad is too small. Now, a Microsoft SURFACE type desktop, it would be an awesome toy. These things will all be coming - and probably other things we haven't even dared dream that we need or want yet. People think Touch is only for portable devices. Touch is integral to how we interact with the world. The (more) unnatural thing at the moment is how we interface with flat screens and keyboards and mice. I suspect that we'll see most displays become tablets in some sense... tablets or tabletops... but the interaction is going to be increasingly tactile. And you won't need a digitizer-pad once the touch screen itself is flexible enough and sensitive enough. By "flexible enough" - I'm not sure exactly what I mean... as far as orientation or actual flexibility... maybe both it seems like the ability to interact from multiple orientations is most important. Get that 21.5" screen down on your lap, or rotated portrait mode and slanted back at the angle of an easel... whatever is appropriate for the task at hand... flat and facing up like a table-top.

mwgeorge
mwgeorge

The review was helpful but I was hoping for a little more guidance for 2012 and beyond. There really was very little fresh info. included in the article. Maybe there is very little going on in the market place?

dcolbert
dcolbert

For a year end wrap-up, this one was a retrospective. There should be a "looking-forward" follow up coming soon - although, it may not dive as deep into specific details as some readers would like... they're both high-level views looking back *and* looking forward.

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