It all started with the iPad, the brainchild of the late, great Steve Jobs. It was close to 30 years in the making. The idea was to create a computing device that was as hyper-portable as it was easy to use. The main benefit of this creation would be an almost unheard of ability to connect to other computers remotely, thus allowing people to access information anytime, anywhere. While some dismissed this vision as impractical, Jobs went to work. The prototype of the iPad was created and tested as early as 2002, around the time when the world was captivated by Apple laptops and of course, the iPod. (Get some background on Apple in Creating the iWorld: The History of Apple.)
A decade later, the iPad has reshaped the landscape of computer technology and its popularity has resulted in a surge of other tablets into the market. According to data released by ABI Research in November 2012, Apple still dominates the tablet market, although Android tablets have taken a bite of its market share in recent years. Which company wins out doesn’t really matter, because tablets have already reshaped the world of computing; a 2012 report by Forrester research estimated that tablets will become the "preferred primary device" for most consumers by 2016.
How will our new love for tablet devices change personal computing? The answer may not be what you think – and it doesn’t have anything to do with whether tablets ever replace PCs.
The Growth of the Ipad
When Apple first released the iPad in 2010, it was met with mixed feelings. While many acknowledged the product’s potential to transform the industry, some complained about the ways it fell short of its laptop counterparts. The inability to multitask as well as the lack of a camera, adequate printing support or a sufficient file browser on the first generation of the iPad had many buyers skeptical of the product.
Of course, these sentiments did little to deter Apple’s core fanatics. In spite of initial ambivalence to the product, the device performed well commercially. In the third quarter of 2010, Apple sold 3.27 million iPads, and more than 4 million in the final quarter of that same year.
A year later, the company released a second generation of the iPad, iPad 2. The company had listened to comsumers’ gripes, and the second-generation iPad included front and rear cameras, better multimedia capabilities and a stronger Wi-Fi connection. Next-generation versions were again released in 2012, including an iPad mini. By the second quarter of 2012, iPad sales had surpassed 100 million, outstripping sales figures for all other PC manufacturers. In other words, tablet computing wasn’t just a trend anymore – it had officially arrived.
A New Industry, a New World
But here’s where things get more interesting. Since the very first iPad rolled off the assembly line, companies have been working on competing tablet products. It wasn’t long before a wide array of tech companies from Samsung and Sony to HP and Microsoft were making plays for tablet market share. A June 2012 survey released by the Online Publishers Association revealed that close to one-third of Internet users report owning a tablet computer. This represents a tremendous increase from the 12 percent who reported owning the product a year before. The association believes that 47 percent of Internet users will own the device by the end of 2014, a staggering figure for a product that has only existed for a few years. Not only has the tablet created a new market of users, it has inspired a major industry for its accessories, such as external and even virtual keyboards to name a few.
Even so, most analysts aren’t convinced that tablets are true "laptop killers." After all, to truly compete with a PC, critics say a tablet would need a much more powerful CPU, more RAM, and ports to attach peripherals. Oh, and maybe an external keyboard and mouse. After all, these are some of things we demand from PCs. The problem is, once you’ve added this to a tablet, you’re essentially left with a laptop. In other words, many people who rely on a PC just can’t see a tablet doing the job.
However, while an increasing number of us will undoubtedly acquire a tablet of our own to play around with, where these devices stand to make a bigger impact is in the developing world, where in many cases, they won’t be competing with a PC at all, but instead providing computing resources to people who otherwise would not have them. (Read about some of the problems that have plagued the tablet market in Tablet PCs: Why Can’t More Manufacturers Get It Right?)
Going Forward, Going Global
Forrester Research Group predicted that by 2016, 375 million tablets will be purchased globally each year. The same study revealed that the highest priority of shoppers looking for a tablet is price.
This is not a sentiment that has been lost on manufacturers, who have continued to compete with the iPad by offering cheaper alternatives. Many industry insiders have even predicted that many tablets may go for less than $100 within the next few years. The reason for this is not so much consumer sentiment as it is market economics: As the supply for tablets increases exponentially, the demand – and the price – of more expensive tablets will decrease over time. For example, DataWind, the company that produces a tablet called Aakash for the Indian government to help improve the quality of education in the country is selling its product for as little as $20 apiece. The project was conceived as a way easily connect thousands of Indian college students through an online learning program, and eventually improve access to computers in India overall.
So far, cheap laptops haven’t been able to compete with slick alternatives like the iPad – at least not in North America. For the most part, companies just aren’t able to convince users that the lower-cost alternatives are of adequate quality. However, in countries where an iPad’s high price make it virtually impossible to attain, lower-priced tablets might be the ticket to the digital age. After all, according to Steve Jobs’ vision, they’re not only portable, but they’re also easy to use.
So has the tablet really changed anything?
Despite the controversy around them, the true legacy of the tablet may not be a slick, expensive iPad, but something more like the Aakash. No, a tablet isn’t good for everything, but its accessibility, ease of use and portability does mean it has some potential as an everyman’s computer.
Unlike in North America, where many of us use several computing devices a day, those in developing countries are likely to rely on just one – at least for now. The recent initiatives to put tablets in the hands of people in developing countries suggests that the tablet might just be the right device for that job. In that case, the argument about what tablets can and can’t do and whether they’ll replace PCs is a non-issue. Perhaps their real destiny is to provide functionality and connectivity where once there wasn’t any at all. Now how’s that for changing the world?