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BW Businessworld

An Overdose Of Tablets

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So yes, the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show (CES) this month turned into Tabletland, as predicted. Everyone, including those who probably had no intention of ever producing a tablet, promptly grew one — just in time for the show.

Panasonic, NEC, LCD monitor maker AOC, Vizio, and all the usual suspects, of course. It was almost like you weren't to be taken seriously as a consumer electronics firm of the future if you didn't prove you could make a tablet too, just like the other guy.

Tablets are one of the coolest pieces of electronics (and I almost said furniture there) ever invented, and I even liked them long ago when they were clunky, heavy and unwanted, but let's rein in the hysteria a little, shall we?

If for no other reason than to take good decisions about them as they begin to be available. And that's one thing: they may not all be within reach. All that was showcased at CES won't necessarily make it to market. That happens. Microsoft's non-existent, scrapped Courier folding tablet comes to mind from sometime last year.

At the show, too, not many tablets came with a release date anywhere in sight. Other than the iPad, the operating systems for the rest are still to prove themselves, which means initial development is really still on.

So, much as it may seem like it's raining tablets, it has only just begun. Honeycomb, Google's new Android for the tablet, is yet to be seen in action on devices. Many tablets showcased with Android 2.1, whether they will eventually be on an upgraded OS or not isn't clear. And how that OS will behave once it's in long-term use is also to be seen; could it get sluggish and freezy, as Froyo has begun to be on my phone, for example?
Another big question is the battery. Several firms said four hours, which is far short of what the iPad gives. Since many of the devices shown at CES are still not on their eventual go-to-market operating systems and may move to upgraded ones, final working performance of the battery is yet to be seen.

Before CES, there was some scepticism about how, in that ocean surge of tablets coming up, one tablet would differentiate itself from the next. After all, how different can one
Android tablet be from another?

Heartening then to see that there was quite a bit of innovation, given the number of tablet devices. The Motorola Xoom 4G tablet stood out, not only because it was running the new Honeycomb system on Nvidia's Tegra 2 processor, but also because it was sleek-looking and the most iPad-like.

Equally smart looking, Notion Ink's Adam has a choice of a unique display — despite some earlier doubts and lack of news about its eventual specs. The BlackBerry Playbook is distinctive in that it has a whole lot that the iPad doesn't, including multitasking, Flash support, USB ports and more, and can tether to BlackBerry smartphones.

Among the more unusual tabs was the NEC, which has two screens, one of which promptly becomes a perfectly usable virtual keyboard; when you're not doing two things at the same time, that is. Another unusual one is all but a laptop with a 1.6-GHz processor and a fan to cool it while it runs on Linux. Asus' Eee Tablet has a slide out qwerty keyboard and prop that lets you hold the screen up and angled, getting fairly close to being a touch notebook.

Last year at this time, it was said that e-readers would emerge as a hot segment with much innovation unfolding on these devices. We know that tablets overtook them and today it's tablets that are to be watched — over the next few months to half-a-year.

The one tablet that dominated everything at CES was perhaps the one that wasn't there. The iPad, of course. In the backdrop of Steve Jobs having taken a leave of absence for illness, the iPad2 is eagerly awaited as much by its fans as by its rivals.

Every tablet unveiled at CES has been measured against the iPad and assessed for its credentials as an "iPad killer". But I suspect it will take more than a sea of tablets to kill the iPad, which, like much else from Apple, generates a cult following. It's possible though that the iPad won't be able to do to tablets what the iPod did to MP3 players. Not without a philosophical and pricing change, anyway.

As tablets begin to come in, the bulk of the buyers are those for whom it would be a second or even third screen. I must admit, I've been a little slow to buy one because I can't justify yet another screen easily. Laptop, television, smartphone, iPod Touch…

And for anyone who doesn't have any screens, it's probably smartphones and netbooks or laptops that will have to take precedence over tablets.

The author is editorial director at Mindworks Global Media Services.
[email protected], @malabhargava on Twitter

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 31-01-2011)