Sunday, December 19, 2010

tablets in 2011 - what to expect

Tablets have just begun to come into their own and the good news is that we are likely to see many more launches in 2011. What can we expect by way of hardware, software and of course, pricing?

1) Hardware
Hardware for tablets will approach top-end parity, as it has done for cellphones. The processor of choice is dual core, and there are several manufacturers in the fray. Samsung has already announced the Orion, with a pair of 1 GHz ARM Cortex A9 cores. The NVidia Tegra  chipset has already been integrated into several tablets and mobile phones including the newly launched LG Optimus 2X, and Notion Ink's Adam tablet. Texas Instruments has so far been powering Motorola phones with a single core chip, and will be debuting the 1.5 GHz OMAP dual core mobile processor next year. The performance will reportedly be faster than the NVidia Tegra. Qualcomm also has 1.2 GHz and 1.5 GHz processors coming up. Hopefully, a lot of these powerhouses will get showcased at CES 2011 in January. For the end user, dual core processors will translate into better hardware acceleration for 3D graphics, gaming and viewing HD video, as well as effortless multi-tasking. This opens up new scope for functionality on tablets.

So much for processor speeds, what about display?  The best displays on the market currently are Apples Retina display (iPhone), Samsung's SAMOLED (Super AMOLED) and Sony's Super LCD. While I would love to see SAMOLED on tablets, this year we have seen that Samsung has been unable to keep up with the global demand for the display. The company has promised to address the issue in 2011, by boosting production, but obviously, alternatives will arise to the much coveted AMOLED display. One such alternative is the low-powered PixelQi hybrid LCD display, which can function like an LCD display and colored EInk display through dimming of the optional backlight. The PixelQi display has been a huge talking point for Notion Ink's Adam tablet and it definitely has potential if the company can get it into mass production, as it can make your tablet double up as a true ebook reader.

2) Software

Software and the UI (user interface) will be the critical factor which will make or break a tablet. Till date, only Apple has a genuine tablet-customised operating system. We have seen a variety of Android tablets, but Google claims that Android is not currently optimised for tablets (displays larger than 5 inches). In effect, the tablets that run on Android today are only offering a blown up smartphone experience.

The way of the future is operating systems that are created specifically for tablets. Notion Ink has designed the Eden UI for its Adam tablet, Blackberry will create a new OS based on QnX for its upcoming PlayBook and Nokia has a very promising candidate for handhelds in the Maemo OS, which currently features on the Nokia N900.  And of course, Android 3 (Honeycomb) will be optimised for tablets.

A dedicated operating system and apps, are what will distinguish tablets from smartphones. We would expect tablets to do what our phones cannot, and to an extent, what our laptops can. With the way hardware is heading, in terms of pure specs, tablets will overtake netbooks, but will also be way more expensive. In order to substitute them, tablets have to make themselves more useful. For instance, I need to tout my laptop around to download and edit work-related attachments, as this is something that cannot be done on my smartphone. If a tablet would let me do this task easily, it could replace my laptop in several scenarios. But for this, the tablet would have to facilitate tasks that I take for granted on my laptop, including such basics as copy and paste.

Pricing is also a critical part of the equation. Tablets are 'in-between' devices. You will definitely need a mobile phone and you will need a laptop or PC, but you do not really need a tablet. The pricing needs to tempt you to buy one, else it will only be a geek's toy. I believe that to succeed, tablets need to pitch their pricing in the same range as notebooks (USD 300-400, or Rs.12,000-15,000). Only then will we see mass adoption of this form factor.

Meanwhile, we can look forward to 2011 as the year when tablets will really come into their own strength.