TABLET computers are barely a year old, yet it is hard to imagine life without them.
Tablets celebrated their Australian anniversary recently, having arrived to unprecedented crowds outside Apple stores on May 28, 2010.
The gadgets have dominated headlines, hands and handbags ever since, with Apple selling more than 15 million iPads and other major computer makers joining the trend.
Research firm Gartner predicts more than 69 million tablet computers will be sold worldwide this year and Telsyte forecasts a million of those will be sold in Australia, bringing the total number in the country to 1.3 million.
But, give it another three years and that figure will jump to more than 5 million, it says.
The quick adoption is being fuelled by more tablet makers and models, proving the gadget to be more than just an oversized smartphone or an undersized computer.
Motorola recently launched its first tablet, the XOOM, the first released with Google’s Android tablet software Honeycomb. It’s being joined by many more Google-powered tablets, including the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1v, the ASUS Eee Slate, ViewSonic ViewPad 10s and small-size HTC Flyer. Google Android global partnerships director John Langerling says Honeycomb has sparked a second wave of tablet computers and the software’s openness is helping more PC makers get in the game.
At the company’s recent I/ O conference in San Francisco, it announced plans to extend that tablet software.
Google will release a new version, tantalisingly called Ice Cream Sandwich, that will make its smartphone and tablet version more alike.
It also plans to improve the size of apps and widgets to appeal to tablet users.
‘‘ Widgets are one thing that have been on the Android platform forever now, but they make a lot more sense on a tablet screen,’’ Langerling says.
‘‘ Widgets will now become scalable, so if you’d like to give more space to the contents of your inbox you can make that widget larger.
‘‘ If you want to see more of your Twitter feed on your homescreen, you can.
‘‘ We will make further enhancements to make third-party apps scale [ to fit the tablet screen], too.’’
Google will also launch a cloud-based music streaming service and a movie download offering a clear challenge to Apple’s dominant iTunes Store.
But some tablet makers are trying a different tack.
HP will launch a tablet with its own WebOS software later this year and RIM is due to launch the BlackBerry PlayBook in Australia in coming weeks.
The tablet features BlackBerry Tablet OS software, advanced multi-tasking and is designed to be business-friendly.
RIM chief technology officer David Yach says users are unlikely to care about the different software, ‘‘ they don’t care if there are gerbils underneath making it happen’’, but will pay attention to its speedy operation and convenient 7-inch ( 17.78cm) size.
‘‘ There are two schools of thought about tablet sizes. It needs to be portable, but it also needs to have a large screen,’’ Yach says.
‘‘ The bigger [ a tablet] is, the less often it is with me. This will fit in a woman’s purse, and I saw one PlayBook being carried in the small of a man’s back, like a gunslinger.’’
Telsyte research director Foad Fadaghi predicts BlackBerry’s tablet will do well as it offers ‘‘ a point of difference in a crowded Android market’’, but he says both new strains of tablet will struggle to outsell Apple’s iPad. ‘‘ Being first to market has really helped Apple maintain its leadership, and tablets fit nicely with the Apple philosophy of a simple device that is not very buggy and seems to be good for all types of technology users,’’ he says.
Even so, Fadaghi predicts Google Android tablets will steal as much as 20 per cent of the Australian tablet market this year.
Tablets, in general, are also likely to steal some business from traditional computers.
Fadaghi says their appearance has, at least, ‘‘ slowed decision-making’’ on laptop purchases as tablet users consider whether they can work on their slate instead.
‘‘ They are a complimentary device to the laptop and they can also substitute for it,’’ he says.
‘‘ They do meet our insatiable need to always be connected to social networks and email.
‘‘ They are also a sit-back media consumption device that wasn’t seen as a creative tool, but that’s changing . . . especially now they feature cameras.’’
With 7 per cent of the Australian population to be classified as part of the tablet audience by year’s end, the challenges will keep coming.