This holiday season, the consumer electronics industry is positioning tablets as the next wave of mobile Internet devices that meld the best characteristics of smart phones and computers. Their larger screen size is better suited than smart phones for activities such as reading and watching videos, while their weight makes them easier than laptops to tote. Their computing power can handle many tasks.
Yet, because the gadget falls somewhere between a phone and a laptop, its usefulness remains unproven for many consumers. And the tablet's affordability remains an obstacle for many consumers in the wake of recession. Apple Inc.'s iPad, which was introduced in April and is arguably the most recognizable tablet device, starts at $499 and still is far from being a mainstream product. Apple sold a few million iPads in its first quarter, according to ABI Research.
A report from market research firm Gartner recently predicted that tablets — slate devices that support touch technology and run a lightweight operating system — will reach sales of 19.5 million units worldwide this year. Gartner also predicted that sales would reach almost 55 million units next year and 150 million units in 2013.
If the tablet takes off, it likely will push dedicated e-readers and netbooks to the fringes, said Shahid Khan, chairman and chief strategist at MediaMorph Inc., a New York-based digital media tracking company.
"The tablet has multiple-use cases," Khan said. "I see a lot of people using them as laptops for e-mail and Web browsing. They are gradually getting used to typing on that screen. It has surprisingly, even at the price points of iPads, become a kid entertainment device."
But e-readers and netbooks are unlikely to disappear entirely. Avid readers or students may prefer a device like Amazon's Kindle, whose black and white display is designed to mimic the look of reading a book and can be seen in direct sunlight. Other consumers may want a netbook's physical keyboard.
"It would be fantastic if I could flip a switch and go back and forth" between a Kindle-like display and the full color of the iPad screen, said Willie Morris of Fort Lauderdale, who owns both a first-generation Kindle and an iPad. He bought the Apple device because he wanted a more portable replacement for his laptop. "It was a little hard getting used to typing on the screen because it's touch instead of the haptic feedback with the (physical) keyboard," said Morris, who works in Web-presence consulting and online reputation management. "But I got used to it pretty quick."
Morris also has adjusted to keeping all of his information in the cloud, since the iPad (like other tablets) doesn't have the same kind of storage capacity as a traditional laptop. Cloud computing is an increasingly popular technology that enables computer users to access data and software online.
As for netbooks, industry data suggest that growth in these products is slowing. ABI Research had forecast in July that almost 60 million netbooks would be shipped worldwide this year. The firm last week revised its projection to 43 million units.
Matthew Growney, founder and chief executive of Concord, Mass.-based technology company Isabella Products, said he believes the decline in netbooks makes those devices a cautionary tale.
"We've seen the multipurpose model fail, and that's the netbook," said Growney, co-founder and former managing director of Motorola Inc.'s venture capital arm. His company is focused on gadgets for narrower segments and is working on a tablet for children that combines e-reading features with drawing and other kid-friendly applications.
"The people who have a laptop and a smart phone will probably go buy a tablet, and then they'll be disappointed because the tablet isn't as good as a laptop," Growney said. "If you have a smart phone, there's nothing (more) you can do on the tablet except maybe watching video."