Tablets have taken over: here's what comes next

Tablets have taken over: here's what comes next

Summary: The tablet is a relative newcomer on the mainstream computing scene, but everyone is trying to reinvent it. Here are some of the changes to come.


Want to see what the next iPad will look like? How about images of the new Google Nexus models or Samsung's forthcoming tablets? Despite all the secrecy around these products, and the minor problem that none of them actually exist, images of all are easy to find on the internet.

None of these images are real — they're concepts build by fans or designers showing off their enthusiasm for the brands and their ability to create and render mock-ups.

The quality of these attempts vary quite a bit: some take existing designs and extrapolate forward (this generally means bigger screens, thinner bodies); others invent an entirely different future for their favourite brands, where the designer isn't constrained by mundane worries like physics or battery technology.

It's quite easy to find many of these competing visions of the tablet's future online. As well as reinventions of existing products by enthusiasts, there are blue-sky mock-ups that completely rethink the form factor, as well as futuristic concepts from the tablet makers themselves (see our gallery of futuristic tablet designs).

Like all visions of the future, these concept tablets tell us more about today's technology than tomorrow's: compared to this imagined world of light, flexible devices that easily share content our current generation of tablets are heavy, unyielding and antisocial lumps.

The tech industry has been building tablets for decades, but it's only in the last four years that they've sold in large numbers (sending traditional PC sales into steep decline as a result). Roughly 285 million tablets will be made this year — almost as the same number as desktops and notebooks combined.

Saturation or reinvention?

Although some fear that the tablet market is reaching saturation, it's also arguable that the tablet is ripe for reinvention — perhaps incorporating some of the design elements seen in those concept tablets, and also taking advantage of the Internet of Things and other emerging technologies.  

Chrystelle Labesque, research manager in IDC's personal computing team, said that while the initial explosive growth of tablets had slowed in Europe, there is still plenty of room for growth. This will include new types of consumers in comparison to classic PC users — children and the elderly for example. In business, tablets may replace manual processes or traditional point-of-sales devices, and tablets will also continue to replace other types of devices such as notebooks and netbooks, said Labesque.  

"In the past you had very clear scenarios; if you were working at your desk you had a big grey tower, if you were travelling a bit you were given a notebook and with the first bulky notebooks you were happy if it was less than 3kg. Today what you have is an incredible choice," said Labesque.

As well as entering new markets, new tablet sizes will abound. "I wouldn't say that the tablet form factor is fixed," she said, pointing to the success of the Asus Transformer Book T100 two-in-one device.

Larger screen devices are also likely to become more common, she said: "There is in that sense evolution. I don't not say that tomorrow a 12-inch detachable will become the mainstream [but] there is some room there."

Ranjit Atwal, research director at analyst Gartner agreed that while growth in tablet sales will slow, there's still massive potential for these devices.

"There's still enough potential audience out there that need a device that's bigger than a phone to access the internet and with the ecosystem around both Android and Apple there's enough value in a £250-£300 device — and even cheaper now — that they're not going to go away," he told ZDNet.

While most tablets are currently homebodies, as more get cellular as well as wi-fi connectivity (and get lighter) people will be more likely to start carrying them around more regularly. "People want to take their tablets with them," he said. "There is an evolution around how people use these devices."

Atwal foresees a world where the tablet will be one of a series of linked devices that we use along with a smartphone, various wearable devices and smart TVs where information, services and content can be shared across them. You might get an alert about a new message on your smart watch, read the full text on your smartphone, then watch half the embedded video on your tablet and then finish it at home on the TV. The tablet simply becomes part of a series of devices that will also connect with the broader Internet of Things.

"We've started building this grid of devices, sensors, and information flows as we move forward where they are more proactive at providing information rather than reactive as we are often now. You can start thinking of a world where the information comes to you rather than you trying to get information," Atwal said.

From a hardware point of view there are obvious steps forward: tablets will continue to get lighter and thinner and battery life will continue to grow (although there is an ongoing trade off between those options). Cellular connectivity may become more common (although the cost of data is likely to continue to be a limiting factor on this).

The idea of foldable devices has been around for a while and may be commercially feasible within the next few years — Samsung has already showcased flexible OLED screens using its YOUM technology, for example.

One thing is certain: formerly distinct device categories are smearing into continuum; the difference between a large smartphone and a small cellular-equipped tablet is debatable, while the difference between a large tablet with a removable keyboard and an ultrabook is minimal.

Further reading

Topics: Tablets: Where's the Productivity?, Emerging Tech, Mobility, Tablets

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  • Tablets have taken over ??

    Who are you kidding? This, also published here today, is more accurate.
    • Take over, oh no!

      Oh no, tablets have taken over! My grandma, pre-school toddlers, and unemployed losers love to use tablets because they don't have to think. Now as for ZDNet readers, no no no, tablets are toys. I think Steve Ranger posted this column to ZDNet by accident.
      Sean Foley
      • Logic

        So... unless you think that there are more "ZDNet readers" than "grandmas", "pre-school toddlers", and "unemployed losers" you apparently AGREE that tablets have taken over.
        • Reality

          Come on now, lighten up. The fore-mentioned users consider tablets as primary devices and have taken over their little tech world. For everyone else they are fun supplemental devices that get way to much hype. Most people have a smartphone, tablet, and full feature PC. They co-exist.
          Sean Foley
          • Reality?!?

            First, lighten up yourself, and quit wasting yours and everyone else's time trolling Apple-related articles (or in this case, articles that might even tangentially relate to an Apple product).
            Second, reality is in actual numbers. The data, as you have now twice admitted, do not favor your argument.
          • Apple?!?

            I saw no mention of "Apple" or "Apple-related" products until _you_ brought it up.

            You also completely missed the point. Purchase of tablets != death of the desktop. Tablets aren't replacing full desktop/laptop functionality. Yes - they are off-loading casual/consumptive use, but as Sean noted, this is supplementary. Many may be content to explore the boundaries of tablet use, but you can almost assuredly bet its done safe in the knowledge that they have a desktop/laptop waiting in the wings.
          • love the != sign

            you, and me, will keep an actual computer around, but as for the rest of the world - not so sure.
          • A sense of insecuri

            There's a sense of insecurity with PC centric folks in thinking the PC will die off due to tablets. They hunt for any article the shows this not to be true, that tablets are toys and PCs are for real men lol. Give it a rest.

            Tablets such as the iPad finally introduces a third viable computing option to those that never really needed a full workhorse PC in the first place. Think young and old generations, folks that are disabled/special needs. Those that never really needed a truck now have the option of buying a small "mini" car to maneuver the city. The PC will always be available for the times they need to do heavy hauling but the majority will be spent using a small car (tablet device) not a truck. That option was not available to them just a few years ago, and now it is. It's natural for the PC-centric folks to feel insecure. It means instead of buying yet another PC, they now have that third viable computing option in a tablet (that doesn't run Windows). Why do you think Microsoft decided to brand everything "Windows"? And screw with the UI (metro)? They themselves foresee what's coming.
      • Unemployed losers?

        Where does that comment fit anyone? I know numerous folks with advanced degrees, even PhDs, MD, and the like, that through no fault of their own are now unemployed. Mergers, businesses reducing workforce, businesses moving, the list goes on.
        • because some people like talking out their a**

          I'd ignore him.
        • I would amend that

          You know a lot of educated people who, through no fault of their own, lost their jobs.

          If you still don't have a job 6 months later I would suspect there is another problem.
    • Some truth to it I guess

      I have had 3 tablets in the time I have had one notebook. Which is of better value?
      Maybe its why tablets are selling well? I finally stopped buying them, they get slow fast and really don't provide the full experience vs a notebook.
      • Exactly, tablets have small screens, low processor power and cannot run x86

        Which makes them a 'no-go' for the majority of people.
        • How is that a negative?

          "Exactly, tablets have small screens, low processor power and cannot run x86"

          That sounds like all benefits to me lol.

          Translation - tablets are very small /nimble and personal. The smaller screens means I can take it in more places and use it anywhere, in any orientation. Plus it's not hindered by battery draining x86 architecture.
          • The problem with taking

            everywhere is that means $$$$$$$$$$ for AT&T, Sprint, Verizon and T-Mobile in data charges. Those 3 G and 4 G cards would be nice if data was free. The moved the devices in a specialized group as far as need.
    • The World Cup begins :)

      Prove how good you are in football with TipExpert and win a tablet.
      Download the free app from the Play Store:
      or visit our site, we'll post the prizes before the World Cup begins.
      Tip Expert
  • How about my innovation of a hinged stand that has

    a physical qwerty keyboard on it, holding up the screen at any angle, much improving on the one or two position Surface kickstand and then folds like a clamshell so the screen is protected. The rigid base will make it stay on your lap better.
    And an improvement over the inaccurate touchscreen with a gesture pad that can also be used to move a precise pointer on screen.
    Oh wait, i've just re-invented the laptop...

    I think we will come back full circle, at least in general business. I've done the tablet route but now the laptop is a chromebook and I am happy with that and my smartphone. In our personal lives tablets will remain popular like TV sets are.
  • Foldable ain't gonna happen, nope

    While I thought the Courier prototype was as neat as the next guy, think about it... that's two tablets for the price of, well... two tablets. That's just not going to fly, given how they have commoditized.
    • Depends

      Having laptop with touchscreen instead of keyboard is not that great idea but folding tablet would be quite nice. Imagine if you could fold iPad or Surface in half. Then it would not need protective cover and it would also fit in the pocket. Looks pretty cool to me.
    • I am not sure I understand your point.

      I thought that Courier was the most innovative design in decades; certainly the most innovative product from MS in decades. It is hard to understand why MS dumped Courier for Surface. That is arguably one of the dumbest ever tech decisions.