The year the tablet market grew up

November 25, 2011

If 2010 was the year of iPad, then 2011 was the year of the tablet.

When Apple introduced the iPad in April 2010, it convinced consumers that they wanted — even needed — tablets in their lives, as competitors scrambled to come up with their own version of the “magical” device. Running its own software, iOS, on its own hardware, Apple quickly solidified its place at the top of the market.

Fast-forward a year and another generation of the iPad. Apple is still king of the tablet world — with 68 percent of the market, according to research firm IDC — but it faces a growing number of increasingly credible competitors.

Android tablets have emerged in all sizes, niches and price points. Competitors are seizing opportunities to target customers who don’t fit the one size Apple is offering.

In some ways, it’s parallel to what happened in the smartphone world. Apple’s iPhone popularized the idea of the smartphone from its introduction in 2007, but smartphones running Google’s Android system have taken off since then. Android phones make up more than half of the world’s smartphone market, thanks in part to niche targeting and manufacturers’ efforts to go after lower price points. Tablet prices haven’t quite followed the same pattern, but analysts predict that Apple will lose ground to competitors that go after the lower end of the market.

This year’s lineup of gadgets has the potential to redefine the tablet market because it shows a deeper understanding of how people use the devices.

After all, what do we use tablets for, really? According to a March survey from Google’s AdMob team, the top five things tablet owners are doing are: gaming, surfing, e-mailing, reading the news and accessing social networks. Most tablet use is at home on weeknights in place of traditional computer use. In other words, people use their tablets to veg out.

So although Android-based Kindle Fire can’t compete with the quality and processing power of the iPad 2, the $199 device doesn’t need to. All it has to do is replace whatever is on the average nightstand or coffee table.

Amazon is particularly well positioned to fill that void because it also happens to be one of the world’s most popular bookstores. The company is betting that its low-cost device will be a hit with the tablet crowd, who might just want to replace that stack of bedside books with a paperback-size gadget that lets them read, get in a couple levels of Angry Birds during commercial breaks and finish their e-mail before bed.

Only 28 percent of the tablet owners Google surveyed said that they are using tablets as their primary computer, which would require the top-notch processing power.

There’s no doubt that the iPad 2 is still a dominant device. Bolstered by Apple’s smooth and fluid iOS, its extensive app store and access to the company’s iCloud services, it’s not likely to come down from the top spot in the market anytime soon. Google’s Android is fantastic but suffers from having to accommodate the quirks of several manufacturers that want to put their own spin on the system. Unlike devices running iOS, Android devices don’t all have the same menu options or layout, which can be frustrating for customers trying to make comparisons. But Google is cooking up a more unified version of Android for its tablets and smartphones — code-named Ice Cream Sandwich — which might address complaints that the system is too fragmented.

Once the tablet market’s trailblazer, Apple should be looking in its rearview mirror. The company is likely to stay at the top of the market for a while, but competition means it will have to avoid getting too comfortable. To stay ahead, Apple will have to continue to innovate, and consumers will reap the benefits.

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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