Thursday, August 25, 2011

The real future of tablets

As far back as 2001, Bill Gates predicted that tablets would become the most  popular form of PC sold in America. It's not yet happening, but the tablet segment is poised to grow rapidly - research firm In-Sat estimates that 250 million tablets will ship in 2017, with the number reaching 100 million by end 2012. It's perhaps a little ironic that the pace of growth is driven by not by Microsoft but by arch rival Apple.

Today, it seems like everyone has a theory about the future of tablets. And these predictions have value as a measure of the decisions that companies will take, which will ultimately shape the future of the market. In that sense, the tech sector is similar to the fashion industry. It decides what will will be the 'next big thing' and we as consumers just follow it. Today we have a choice between Android and Apple, but that's just a fallout of the industry leaders' decision that mobile phones would become mini-computers and browsing devices rather than plain calling and texting devices.

Most recently, JT Wang,  Chairman of Acer has suggested that tablet fever is a fad which is on the decline and people are already shifting their interest back to notebooks. Intel concurs in this theory, supporting the concept of an Ultrabook  (a super thin high performance notebook with a solid state drive, but priced like a notebook) and predicts that Ultrabooks will constitute 40% of PC sales by end 2012. The first ultrabooks will ship by end 2011.

On the other hand,  Microsoft has repeatedly insisted that tablets are the future of PCs, keeping in line with Bill Gates' stand in the past. In other words, tablets will run Windows 8 (a PC OS) rather than Windows Phone and essentially do the same things that a PC does, with the new touchscreen based form factor. So tablets will replace our PCs?

Let's hear Steve Jobs' theory - after all, he is the modern-day architect of the tablet revolution. Steve believes that tablets will usher in the post PC era and the PC form factor will rapidly get outdated. He also admits to the limitations of tablets today as content creation devices but believes that these will sort themselves out in a matter of time. So it appears that Apple and Microsoft are on the same page - tablets are  the future. There is however a major difference in the way the two companies are viewing the future of tablets.

Steve Jobs thinks that they are 'Post PC devices'. This is reflected in the tablet experience from Apple which is significantly different from the PC experience. We are being shifted to a new paradigm, which transcends issues such as hardware specs, use of touchscreen input etc. These are enablers of the experience, but do not define it. And with the release of OS X Lion, and maybe even earlier, Apple has been re-working the PC experience to be more tablet like than ever before. For instance the usage of apps as a gateway to the Net. Hypothetically, in the future one can see productivity software running as an app on the cloud - on your tablet and on your PC.

Microsoft's approach has a subtle difference. If the tablet will replace the PC, running a desktop OS rather than a mobile OS, then it must take on the mantle of what the PC does. So Microsoft's approach will probably consist of engineering the tablet to deliver an experience that's as close to the PC as possible. Maybe you will dock your tablet into a productivity centre consisting of a printer, keyboard, external hard drive. Maybe a Kinect-like technology will replace the use of a mouse with hand movement.

What will be the role of Android tablets in this party? There is no single spokesperson on what Android tablets will due in the future. Google's stake should be clear, if one looks at what they did with Android as a mobile phone OS - Google wants to be the platform of choice on the maximum number of devices, to retain their monopoly as a search, ads and apps company. To this end, Ice Cream Sandwich aims to be a unified OS working on all Android devices, very much as iOS works across Apple's mobile devices. As for the hardware manufacturers of Android, their scramble to gain market share will do for tablets what they did for mobiles - democratisation of the market. I believe that the thrust of Android manufacturers will be to introduce affordably priced tablets with great specs (hardware based innovation) to deliver iPad alternatives. Of course, the flexibility and freedom that the Android platform offers will be an added incentive to buy into these devices. But the real potential of Android tablets will be unleashed when the operating system is exploited to transcend the boundaries of just content consumption or creation. For instance, an Android tablet could sit in my car, controlling the music, air-conditioning, navigation etc. and it could be used to remotely control my security system at home when I am travelling. The open code of Android can be adapted to huge uses that the closed Microsoft and Apple systems may not allow.

What's your take on the future of tablets?