With so much chatter about tablets this year, you might think that the handheld, rectangular devices being unveiled represent a significant innovation. The reality is that so much of what we're seeing is not a whole lot different than what we saw in previous years; these products offer only a few new twists. But those new twists could make the difference between tablets' remaining a niche item and their finally busting out to the mass market in a meaningful way.
I spent a lot of time scouring the booths at this year's CES show for tablets, and what I'm seeing feels like déjà vu: With the occasional exception (the lightweight RIM PlayBook, for example), none of the tablets I looked at departed dramatically from what has been shown before.
What is different is the nomenclature. Before, Asian hardware manufacturers showed reference designs for "mobile Internet devices," a kludgy term used to describe products such as Nokia's Symbian-based Internet Tablet several years ago (the term never caught on). Going even further back, "tablet PC" once specifically meant a slate-shaped Windows-based PC; that definition dates back to the Tablet PC initiative that Microsoft discussed at CES in 2001.
So much of what I saw this year consisted of just reference designs and prototypes; manufacturers put these on display at the show to gauge what customer (read: retailer) interest is in their product concept, or to find a US distributor interested in selling the product in retail channels. Of course, having a reference design or prototype alone does not equate to a company's actually bringing a product to market let alone to the US based mass market (as opposed to a regional Japan-, Asia-, or Europe-only release).
Take the example of NEC's Android Cloud Communicator, a dual-screen reference-design tablet running a variant of Android 2.1, with a resistive touchscreen instead of the capacitive touchscreens we're accustomed to on mobile phones. At first blush, it looks intriguing but the specs don't impress.
NEC demonstrated this tablet at a preshow media event as well as on the show floor, but the company clearly noted that what we saw was a reference design, not a shipping product in the way that, for instance, a Blu-ray player or HDTV is a shipping product (even if it won't ship for several months). NEC was vague on release plans and details, and the company didn't enumerate plans to bring the tablet to market at all in the United States, just that it would come out in Europe and Asia. I wouldn't be surprised if this tablet never sees the light of day.
Oftentimes, the products shown at CES are hand-built preproduction or prototype models that may not even carry the components or software planned for them.
For example, none of the Android 3.0 (Honeycomb)-capable tablets that are expected to ship with, or upgrade to, the new OS actually had it running at CES. And although I've read reports claiming that the Motorola Xoom was the only one to have Android 3.0 working, everyone should realize that "working" is a very loose term. At Motorola's press conference, all of the Xoom demos entailed not live walk-throughs by demonstrators, but prefab videos (well-done videos, at least) of how the different features of Honeycomb work. But that made it difficult to gauge things such as responsiveness, image quality, and even the text quality of the display (of course, the fact that journalists weren't even able to touch the Xoom didn't help us gauge its true potential, either).
Meanwhile, MSI had its WindPad 100 models on display. Unlike last year, when MSI showed its Android and Windows tablets behind glass cases, this year the WindPad 100 was touchable. But in this instance, too, I came to the realisation that what we were seeing wasn't what we'll get. MSI says its WindPad 100W (the Windows tablet) is not targeted at retail markets to begin with; instead, the company says it is focusing on vertical corporate markets (such as healthcare or finance) for its Windows tablets because the prices will still be high. Hm...that's what Fujitsu is doing, too, and that also echoes HP's strategy with its shipping-but-still-backordered Slate. And even then, MSI says it isn't sure when the product will ship in the US market, the second or third quarter of this year, perhaps. That's a lifetime of possible tech and spec changes between now and then.
MSI's Android tablet, the WindPad 100A, didn't have a specific release timeframe attached (though a similar Android pad appeared as a prototype last year, too). The company did say that this unit will ship with Android 3.0 (Honeycomb), and that it's aiming for spring or summer. The tablet will run Nvidia's Tegra 2, but other internal specs, such as storage, will depend on component pricing at the time. And the display shown at the show? A 1280-by-600-pixel prototype. The shipping display will be 1280 by 800.
Chatter among CES attendees and analysts estimates that anywhere from 75 to 125 "tablets" were presented at the show. Assuming that such wild estimates are correct, the truth of the matter is that we'll be lucky if a third of those tablets actually come to the mass market under branded names (be they known companies such as Creative and Motorola, or lesser-known companies now in the game like Efun and StreamTV).
Many more tablets will come to market as low-cost offerings. And of those, some should never really find their way into consumers' hands: Their cost-cutting components including less-powerful chipsets, a lack of Google mobile services and Android Market, unresponsive resistive touchscreens, and low-resolution displays, are bound to make for a mediocre user experience. But there will also be some gems in the rough, tablets that won't be from marquee names or even have top-notch specs but will deliver what they promise and provide a surprisingly smooth user experience.
It's those tablets together with the Apple iPad juggernaut and the crème de la crème of Android 3.0-based tablets that are leading the revolution now under way. And tablets will truly go big when the low-cost generic offerings can further close the gap with the premium products.