2015: The year tablets finally grew up

  • Siladitya Ray, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Dec 26, 2015 17:48 IST
Microsoft’s Surface line of hybrid tablets didn’t take off in the beginning, but by the 4th version (above), Microsoft had a winner on its hands. (Microsoft)

The rise of the tablet has been an interesting story, the iPad when it came out was seen as a solid yet unessential device, it found itself in that valley between laptops and smartphones. But that did not stop it from being a massive success and carving out a new segment in the personal electronics market.

But last year saw a dramatic reversal of fortunes when iPad sales slumped by 12.7% and overall tablet growth level dropped 52.3%. Every tablet manufacturer has had to contend with the longer than expected product cycle times for consumers to replace their existing tablets. Many thought this would be on a yearly basis, akin to the smartphone. Instead it has more accurately reflected the 2-4 year cycle of PC and laptop replacement. Something had to be done, tablets had to evolve or they would go the way of netbooks and PDAs (remember those).

Apple’s iPad Pro, Microsoft’s Surface Pro 4, Surface Tab and Google’s Pixel C all the biggest tablet releases this year have one thing in common; they are all productivity focused hybrids. They are the forerunners of a shift in the tablet market that will most likely define the device category in the next few years. Tablets are growing up, and they aren’t content to just be passive bystanders to the digital content that are being created by the droves.

Apple’s iPad Pro, which was announced in September, is a productivity-focused hybrid, unlike iPads of the past, which focused on consumption of content. (Apple)

The tablets that followed the original iPad threw away all peripherals and input methods other than touch. The space and weight savings made the devices perfect for what Apple and later on everyone else marketed the tablet for: watching videos, reading books, playing games, browsing the Web, checking Facebook, and maybe the occasional email or two. They were, almost literally, larger smartphones that were simply better at displaying content on a big screen. Back then, the use case was understandable and perfect. Today, however, users have grown to expect more from their mobile devices, instigating a shift in how we use and see these devices and, in turn, how these devices are designed.

Thanks to innumerable apps as well as the surge of cloud services, mobile users have also beyond mere replying to e-mails and browsing the Web on tablets to more serious business.

In a bizarre move, it was Microsoft, a company plagued by years of boring/safe products that first took a stab at this with the original Surface Pro but was held back by the terror that came to be known as Windows 8. Though derided and despised in the beginning, the Surface would find some vindication in the iPad Pro. And with Google’s Pixel C now in the arena as well, it seems that the next tablet revolution is almost ready to take flight. Almost.

Google’s Pixel-C hybrid is Google’s version of a productivity-focused device that runs Android. (Google)

Making the software work on a hybrid remains the biggest challenge as keyboard/mouse and touch inputs require fundamentally different approaches. All three major operating systems (Windows, iOS and Android) have their own sad tale to tell, and they all have some work to do to make the transition finally happen.

Windows, to some extent, is in the best position when it comes to productivity. It has in its arsenal desktop-level software. Its problem, however, comes from the other side of the fence. To say that its tablet-oriented, touch-based software is wanting would be an understatement, and we have yet to see the fulfillment of the Windows 10 Universal App Platform promise.

iOS, like Android, comes from that other side. These mobile platforms are built with touch, not keyboard or even stylus, in mind. They were built with smaller screens in mind too. iOS 9 was, however, partially redesigned for the iPad Pro, which meant split window multi-tasking at the very best. Most apps, however, still live in an iOS 8 and smaller iPad world, and it would take time before the size of the Pro model would sink in.

Android, on the other hand, is currently a mess. It, too, was designed for single-screen touch-based interaction, but it is also more forgiving. Samsung, LG, Xiaomi and a plethora of third party apps and ROMs have proven that the platform is actually capable of multiple windows. Android Marshmallow actually officially has split window functionality hidden as an experimental feature. It is unfortunate that Google didn’t seize the opportunity to showcase that in the Pixel C. Android 6.0 also finally got official support for Bluetooth pressure sensitive stylus input. No surprise that Google didn’t capitalize on that in the Pixel C either.

The biggest stumbling block though remains the closed marketplace ecosystem for these systems. Unlike PCs where developers can offer free trials for productivity suites and push regular updates, the closed nature of the iOS App Store and to an extent the Google Play store can be a massive turn off.

This new trend in tablets couldn’t have come at a better time, when sales are down and people are asking what role the device would serve with today’s growing smartphone sizes and thinning laptops. They aren’t going to replace those laptops, at least not yet, but they are starting to blur the lines indeed. What’s more, they are clearly moving away from the initial use case set out by the iPad and Android tablet pioneers. And the users are the very ones pushing this change.

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