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.
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 professional role is as a Linux support engineer for a fast-growing Linux/FOSS consultancy group. You can follow him @dcolbert on Twitter or his personal blog, located at http://donovancolbert.blogspot.com.