Just a year ago I sat at home staring at a tablet I was sent for review, the Archos 5 IT. It was one of the first brand name Android tablets, running Android 1.5 without Android Market access, sporting a slow CPU, little RAM and a resistive touchscreen. Yet on paper, it was one of the most impressive devices out there, ahead of most of the competition especially in the media player segment. However the software was terrible, the resistive touchscreen a horror to use, it was slow and still stands as the most buggy device I have ever laid my hands on, even if you combine all the other devices I’ve had. I later got a Viliv S5 which had an excellent screen (size/resolution ratio) and was awesome for video, but suffered from having a resistive touchscreen and running Windows. Now I am sitting here with an iPad, which is limited compared to the two other devices in many ways but offers a much better overall experience.
Today is the last day of 2010, the year that will be forever known as the year that tablets went mainstream. For years this segment was populated by convertible Windows tablets, UMPCs and lately a couple of early Android tablets but in 2010 tablets really got into every home with devices such as the iPad, Dell Streak, Galaxy Tab and of course even more eBook readers. I don’t want to call it the year of the tablet because I think that is yet to come, but it definitely was the year that the tablet segment got some wind in its sails. From being geeky toys, tablets became consumer products that anyone from 2 to 80 years old want. How did it all happen?
The year started off with CES and there were more tablets there than ever. A lot of smaller, semi-unknown manufacturers along with some enthusiast brands like Viliv and then the big guys like Dell with their Streak tablet. At that point in time the world had also just witnessed the soap opera style drama that was the JooJoo tablet’s official announcement, though the device didn’t ship until later in 2010.
A few weeks after CES; Steve Jobs announced the iPad. It would be wrong to say that the iPad was first at doing anything at that point besides being an Apple device, but it still created havoc like no other. When it launched in early April and later with 3G in late April it was still a large iPod touch, as the range of iPad specific software was still rather unimpressive, at least compared to what we now have on it.
Many different tablets popped up over the course of the year, but none of them were any real competition to the iPad- until the Galaxy Tab arrived in November. While it is undoubtedly a success as far as an Android tablet is concerned, it suffered from the same problem as the iPad did at launch where there wasn’t much software available. Maybe we’ll see an update when Android 3.0 comes around, but generally speaking Android devices don’t survive as many software updates as Apple devices do, where you can still put the most recent software on 2.5 year old devices (with some hardware limitations). Motorola has already started marketing its upcoming secret Android 3.0 tablet, and I’m sure a Galaxy Tab 2 is int he works as well.
The iPad finally got multitasking late this year as well, with the iOS 4.2 update. Now rumors are surfacing about an iPad 2, but of course that is just the usual speculations and I doubt we will know anything for sure until Steve Jobs wants us to- most likely at the end of January 2011.
eBook readers also had a good year, and the Kindle got some competition from the Nook and late this year the Nook Color. By the time it was out in late 2009 however Amazon had already expanded the Kindle business and gone international. Mid-2010 the Kindle was updated with a third generation of devices which included a WiFi-only version at $139, really bringing eBook readers to a price point where people could afford it. Just a few days ago the Kindle 3 was declared the best selling product on Amazon of all times, which really underlines how important that price drop was. eBook readers have some real competition now from tablets, which have the added features of apps and publisher independence, so a low price point is crucial to help sell the idea of an e-ink device to the public.
Even with everything that happened in the tablet world in 2010, I have no doubt that 2011 will make that look like a JooJoo launch party in comparison. I predict that we will see an overall jump in screen resolution, similar to the one we saw in the last 1.5 years when suddenly all smartphones jumped from 320×480-ish to 480×800-ish. Dual core CPUs will make their way onto tablets, and the iPad will finally get some real competition as Android 3.0 is released- however I still think iOS will have a noticeable software advantage in a year as well, simply because the fragmentation (both in terms of hardware and manufacturer) inherent in Android. I expect eBook readers will hit the magic $99 price point and become stocking fillers next Christmas, which is of course a good thing. I also think that netbooks will become less popular as the price of tablets and ultra portable laptops start giving them some real heat. Either way, it is sure to be a fun year!