The tablet sits in some misty mid region limbo between the laptop market and the smartphone sector. But increasingly those boundaries are becoming blurred, and global tablet sales would appear to be falling away. Just what might the future hold for the tablet form? Is it truly a product in search of a function? Or has the tablet now firmly embedded itself into the tech psyche for generations to come?
The good old days
For four good years since they first came of age in 2010, tablet sales made for a healthy ramp of a graph, with unit sales increasing year on year as more manufacturers added their weight and development teams to expanding the market. By 2014, the tablet form had outstripped regular PC sales to shift over 216 million units – the high water mark, as it turned out. In large part, these sales were boosted by an accompanying surge of app-based phone gaming, where developers soon found screen space to be a considerable advantage when it came to enhancing a game playing experience.
Tablets share the architecture of their operating systems with their smartphone cousins – not entirely, to be sure, but the cross-platform compatibility is such that pretty much any game you might care to play on your phone you can also play on a tablet. In the main, Android and iOS dominate, with the Windows phone experience trailing a distant third. However, they all share a similar user interface that relies upon a language of gestures to govern device functionality.
These pinch and swipe haptic response actions work far better on a larger screen, where gestures can be more precise, and these control systems are often incorporated into popular app games. A recent example would be the object selection controls integrated within Bethesda Games’ futuristic resource management sim Fallout Shelter; such fingertip mechanics tend to favor the tablet experience over its busy smartphone equivalent.
On tablets, games look better, play better, and there’s enough room to actually see what’s going on compared to smartphones For some games, information presentation can be crucial to gameplay. Casual games, including puzzles and casino games, also benefit greatly from expanded screen size; for instance, playing roulette involves special moves such as outside and inside betting, so there needs to be screen real-estate enough to be able for taps to be precise. Here the user experience is rewarded on a satisfaction curve that can indeed be plotted in screen inches: the bigger the screen, the better the gaming experience all round – a maxim that applies evenly to most casino simulations, and indeed any game built around the interpretation and manipulation of complex data sets.
This principle worked well for the tablet form in its early years, but then, from 2014 onwards, smartphone screens began to overcome some of the initial limitations of the original design concept, boasting brighter, larger screens and faster processing speeds to match. And then came the phablet, the halfway stage between smartphone and fully-fledged tablet. According to a recent survey by Deloitte, we’ve passed peak tablet. They estimate only 165 million tablets will be sold this year, 10 percent less than in 2016, and almost a third less than recorded in 2014. This will be the third year in a row to see a sharp decline in sales. In contrast, the PC market said to be on its knees back in 2014 (partly down to competition from tablets), has now stabilized.
So what’s going on?
Feeling the Pinch
When Apple unveiled the first generation iPad to the world in January 2010, the world looked it over carefully, admired the stylish contours and the 9.7″ touchscreen display and then began to ask the question that has dogged the tablet market ever since – “Yes, it looks lovely, but what’s it actually for?”
The answer, seven years later, would appear to be: a little bit of everything, but nothing in particular. A tablet is a great and portable form for viewing media, for playing music and surfing the net. But it doesn’t stand out as a preferred consumer device at any of these functions. A television will serve up a larger and higher definition picture, a laptop will stream and play media and offers a better array of general purpose functionality. A modern top-spec smartphone is pretty much a laptop in your pocket, bezels or no bezels. This is certainly the direction the big telecom firms are driving in, and they don’t show any signs of slowing down.
“Microsoft Surace RT” (CC BY 2.0) by Decade City
Laptops grow seasonally slimmer, lighter, and more powerful. If the latest generation of ultrabooks is anything to go by, they’ll soon be practically invisible from certain angles. Smartphones get faster and their screens get sharper and hog more display space with every iteration. There’s a significant battery hit with each step up, but this is a problem shared by all electronic devices, and tablets certainly aren’t immune on this score. The net result is that as laptops shrink and phones expand, the tablet is getting squeezed in the middle. So what hope then, for the humble tablet?
The future beckons
Just possibly, the advent of the Switch may point to where the future of the tablet lies. Nintendo’s typically quirky modular games console has proved itself a worthy games machine since it’s introduction in March of this year. Titles like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild have amply showcased the potential of its modular nature – twinned handheld controllers that dock with a home station hub unit to provide both Wifi-based portability and console focus. This format has so far proved rather successful, perhaps because it prefigures the kind of design concepts that sci-fi authors and Hollywood screenwriters have been coming up with for ages.
The SF handheld device, be it a Star Trek tricorder, or an Aliens-style heat signature scanner, has been around in speculative fiction for well over half a century. Imaginary “readouts” shifted from dials to digital-watch style flashing LEDs to digital panels displaying panes of infographics as technology showed the way to what might one day be possible.
“Lo scriba” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by gaspartorriero
But consider this.
A Wifi enabled tablet can dock with a computer, either physically, or more conveniently, remotely over a network. It can dock with a physical keyboard for data input and pick up a data stream from its parent device to display it in a portable format. That kind of portability can be very useful in engineering and heavy industry, just as useful in hospitals and surgeries. There are many commercial and public uses for such a technology, and it may be that it is as tools of work, rather than toys, that the tablet shows its true versatility – rugged, portable datapads; durable hardware running dedicated software coded for specialist fields and applications. It’s the Star Trek dream, but it may just be a vision of the future.