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The return of tablet PC

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failed to create a buzz around the tablet PC. , with the , has resurrected this form factor. And around 10 million users are expected to buy this year. Here’s why

They are neither full-fledged laptops nor small enough to be smartphones. But they are sleek, light to ferry around, aesthetic to look at, sport touch screens instead of built-in keyboards and entertain users the day long with a host of goodies like ebooks, music, videos, games and internet surfing.

It’s hardly a surprise, then, that consumer electronic majors like Apple, , , , , , , , , and Panasonic have either recently introduced, or are talking about launching, these devices — known as tablet PCs — in the coming months.

Apple alone would have sold four million iPads by now, analysts say. Towards the end of June this year, the tech major had sold its three millionth iPad — just 80 days after the product’s launch in the US. Lenovo’s Consumer Business Group, too, has revealed its intention to deliver an Android tablet by the end of this year. To be known as LePad, Lenovo is reported to be taking advantage of Apple’s negligible presence in China.

Then there’s the Dell Streak which is a 5-inch Android-based tablet. It has built-in Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and 3G connectivity. The device, according to Dell India Executive Director Mahesh Bhalla, hits the sweet spot between traditional smartphones and larger-screen tablets. The price of the unlocked version of the Dell Streak in the UK is £449 (Rs 37,000) including VAT.

Motorola and Verizon, meanwhile, are reported to be working jointly to produce a tablet specifically for watching television content. The tablet is said to have a 10-inch screen and will use Google’s Android operating system. The tablet is said to be “thinner and lighter than the iPad”. There will also be two cameras, one front-facing for video conferencing and another on the back for photos. The news was not confirmed or denied by Verizon.

Many other consumer electronics companies are talking of making competing media tablets, including Cisco, Hewlett-Packard, Dell and most recently BlackBerry-maker Research In Motion. Chinese telecom supplier Huawei, for instance, has a touchscreen 7-inch tablet which runs on the Android OS and is powered by Qualcomm’s 1Ghz Snapdragon processor. The tablet was exhibited at CommunicAsia this June. It has both 3G and Wi-Fi as well as Bluetooth and a microSD card.

Closer home, Olive Telecom unveiled the 3G tablet, OlivePad-VT100, for Rs 25,000 in India this July. A rival to Apple’s iPad, the company expects to sell around 100,000 units in the next six months after the commercial launch this month. Then you have the Adam Tablet which is currently under development by a Hyderabad-based Notion Ink.

Founded by Rohan Shravan, a 24-year-old engineering graduate from the Indian Institute of Technology-Kharagpur, the Adam Tablet is touted to be an ‘iPad killer’. “You will see the Adam Tablets in India by the end of this year. The pricing of the highest variant will be lower than that of the lowest iPad variant,” says Shravan. Meanwhile, Asus too is planning two versions of the 3G-enabled Eee Pad tablet running on Windows 7 — one will sport a 10.1-inch display and the other a 12-inch display. The launch date has not been confirmed.

The first mover
The term ‘tablet PC’ was made popular by Microsoft way back in 2001 when it announced a product that was defined as a pen-enabled computer conforming to hardware specifications devised by it and running mostly a licensed copy of a “Windows XP Tablet PC Edition”. The software giant, however, was not able to capitalise on its first mover advantage. Analysts attributed the failure to bad timing, high pricing and poor user interface (UI) design.

This January, Microsoft had another go at the tablet. HP’s Slate device was demoed by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer at January’s Consumer Electronic Show (CES), along with tablets from other vendors. Touting the HP Slate 500, an HP website page describes the device as powered by Windows 7 Premium and sporting an 8.9-inch screen with internet access and two cameras (still and video).

With the Apple iPad, though, tablet or media tablet PCs are making a comeback. Media tablets typically do not include built-in hardware keyboards but use a stylus/pen or finger for navigation and data input. They provide a broad range of applications and connectivity, differentiating them from primarily single-function devices such as ereaders (Amazon’s Kindle, for instance). They are primarily marketed as multifunction entertainment devices, but productivity applications will eventually be available to support consumer and enterprise users.

International Data Corporation (IDC) analysts contend the nascent market for media tablets, fostered by the launch of Apple’s iPad, will be driven by the device’s attributes as a content consumption platform and the compelling applications and services that will be created to take advantage of them.

“These are early days for media tablets, an altogether new device category that takes its place between smartphones and portable PCs. IDC expects consumer demand for media tablets to be strongly driven by the number and variety of compatible third-party apps for content and services,” notes Susan Kevorkian, programme director, mobile media & entertainment.

TABLETS OR MEDIA TABLETS?

To begin with, depending on the categories that research firms devise, the iPad could either be a tablet PC or a media tablet PC. IDC, for instance, defines media tablets as tablet-form factor devices with 7- to 12-inch colour displays. They are currently based on ARM processors and run lightweight operating systems (OSes) such as Apple’s iPhone OS and Google’s Android OS. This distinguishes them from tablet PCs, which are based on x86 processors and run full PC OSes.

Gartner, on its part, defines a tablet PC as having a touchscreen size of 5 inches or more, with a full-function operating system such as Windows 7, Windows Vista, Windows XP or Mac OS X. A media tablet is defined as a device that has a screen size of 5 inch or larger but with a restricted-function OS, such as iPhone, Android or Chrome. Gartner includes Tablet PCs in its PC market statistics and forecasts. However, it excludes media tablets from both.

Definitions apart, analysts have been bullish on the sales of these form factors. Consider this. A new forecast from IDC predicts that worldwide media tablet shipments will grow from 7.6 million units in 2010 to more than 46 million units in 2014, representing a compound annual growth rate of 57.4 per cent. In comparison, IDC expects 398 million portable PCs will be shipped in 2014.

Analysts at Gartner are predicting 10.5 million tablet PCs will ship in 2010, a number that includes traditional swivel screen tablets and next-generation devices similar to the Apple iPad. While Gartner expects tablets to account for about 3 per cent of the more than 366 million PC units expected to ship in 2010, advancements in tablet technology could signal a shift in the PC market.

Gartner’s view of the 2010 tablet market, however, is much rosier than that of ABI Research whose analysts predict only 4 million will ship. However, even ABI noted the potential of what they dubbed “media tablet PCs”, claiming that 57 million devices will ship by 2015. ABI, too, cited the iPad as a driving force in consumer tablet adoption. The figures may even prompt research firms to revisit their predictions for the sales of Tablet PCs.

Apps on tap
The availability of apps unique to media tablets and that differentiate the experience of using one compared with a PC or smartphone will be crucial for driving consumer demand, say analysts. For instance, the reason for iPad’s success is that developers have created over 11,000 exciting new apps for it which take advantage of its Multi-Touch user interface, large screen and high-quality graphics. Moreover, iPad will run almost all of the more than 225,000 apps on the App Store, including apps already purchased for the iPhone or iPod.

Apple’s CEO, Steve Jobs, said in a statement in June: “People are loving iPad as it becomes a part of their daily lives. We’re working hard to get this magical product into the hands of even more people around the world, including those in nine more countries next month.”

As the category matures and more media tablet-optimised apps become available, IDC expects that media tablets will evolve beyond nice-to-have devices and become necessities for many consumers.

Companies like Dell think likewise. “The Dell Streak is a compact and powerful companion for people who want to expand their ability to access their digital lives on the go, and realise tomorrow’s technology today. The spacious 5-inch screen is ideal for experiencing thousands of Android market widgets, games and applications, all without squinting or compromising portability,” according to Bhalla. It is expected to be introduced in India soon but the company has not committed itself to any timeframe.

“Media tablets, such as the iPad and similar devices, will significantly detract from mini-notebook shipments in 2013 and onward, when we expect their prices to be lower and, more importantly, their functionality to be more similar to mini-notebooks,” says Raphael Vasquez, research analyst at Gartner.

In Gartner’s most-likely scenario, approximately 10 million media tablets are expected to ship in 2010. Media tablets will have a more substantial place in the market than tablet PCs. Annual worldwide tablet PC shipments will reach approximately 2 million units in 2010 and may not surpass 3 million units until after 2012.

“A tablet will not replace a laptop, netbook, or mobile phone, but will remain an additional premium or luxury product for wealthy industrialised markets for at least several years,” concludes ABI analyst Jeff Orr. He cautions, however, that the odds for new entrants are bigger in this market because existing vendors have already signed up agreements with various content providers and retailers.

FORM FACTOR

If prophet Moses was to rewrite the ‘Ten Commandments’ on Mount Sinai today, he would not have to necessarily etch his words in stone. He would have a plethora of options — a notebook, netbook, or even a tablet PC like Apple’s iPad. This flight of fancy apart, tablet PCs today offer quite a lot, and come in different forms.

Booklet PCs: Dual-screen tablet PCs fold like a book. Typically equipped with multi-touch screens and pen writing recognition capabilities, they are designed to be used as digital day planners, internet surfing devices, project planners, music players, and displays for video, live TV, and e-reading.

Slates: They resemble writing slates, and do not have a dedicated keyboard. For text input, users rely on handwriting recognition via an active digitiser, touching an on-screen keyboard using fingertips or a stylus, or using an external keyboard that can usually be attached via a wireless or USB connection.

Convertibles: Have a base body with an attached keyboard. They more closely resemble modern laptops, and are usually heavier and larger than slates. Typically, the base of a convertible attaches to the display at a single joint called a swivel hinge or rotating hinge. The joint allows the screen to rotate 180 degrees and fold down on top of the keyboard to provide a flat writing surface. This design, although the most common, creates a physical point of weakness on the notebook. These are by far the most popular form factor of tablet PCs, because they still offer the keyboard and pointing device (usually a trackpad) of older notebooks, for users who do not use the touchscreen display as the primary method of input.

Hybrids: Coined by users of the HP/Compaq TC1000 and TC1100 series, they share the features of the slate and convertible by using a detachable keyboard that operates in a similar fashion to a convertible when attached. Hybrids are not to be confused with slate models with detachable keyboards; detachable keyboards for pure slate models do not rotate to allow the tablet to rest on it like a convertible.

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