Tablets have taken over: here's what comes next

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.
Written by Steve Ranger, Global News Director

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.

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