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They are as interactive as smartphones but versatile enough to oust laptops and even small TVs as a viewing device. Ian Calcutt reports on how the tablet is poised for the big time.

After a false start a few years ago with what was then called a UMPC (ultra-mobile personal computer), the tablet sector has re-emerged in force, thanks in part to the mass adoption of smartphones enabling consumers to realise the benefits of a larger touchscreen device.

Apple kickstarted the new tablet era in 2010 with its sleek iPad, quickly achieving market dominance. Just as there are numerous brands and operating systems (OS) in smartphones, so too in tablets, with some companies active in both product types, such as Motorola (recently acquired by Google), HTC, LG and RIM (BlackBerry). Others come from IT or CE specialists, including Dell, HP, Acer, Toshiba, ASUS, Archos and Lenovo.

Heavily advertised and earning masses of press coverage, tablet sales are still relatively small compared to established and conventional products. However, many observers believe the chances for growth are huge, as Elena Prykhodko, market analyst for Futuresource Consulting confirms: “The iPad has brought to life the nascent tablet market and created a new category within mobile computing focused more on entertainment and infotainment applications. Futuresource forecasts worldwide tablet shipments to increase from 17 million units in 2010 to 168 million in 2015, becoming one of the fastest growing CE products of all time. While price remains an important factor in consumer hardware purchases, OS has become one of the key factors in a tablet purchase decision. Differentiating through apps, services and user interface is becoming key to entice consumer demand.”

Simon Stanford, managing director of Mobile for Samsung in the UK and Ireland, says, “When you consider everyone that could benefit from using a tablet device – businesses, commuters, mobile workers, students, parents, gamers – the potential for the product is limitless. Successful manufacturers at the moment are those who provide devices that are as interesting on the inside as they are on the outside. Tablet devices really come into their own through their ease of use, power and portability. The ability to simply flick between watching movies and listening to music, features which aggregate all your personal contacts and fast connectivity when you’re browsing or connecting to the internet – all of these factors contribute to the final purchase.”

Samsung believes that its experience with mobiles will help its tablets to stand out too. “The operating system is just one factor amongst many that people take into consideration when they’re buying a tablet,” says Simon Stanford. “There may be many tablets running on the Google platform, but the similarity ends there. They are all very different in terms of their specifications, hardware and the content available on them. Brand names naturally play a part too. People buy familiar brands, from whom they are confident they will get what they paid for. I have no doubt that Android tablets will do exactly what Android devices have done in the smartphone category. The Samsung Galaxy S II is currently the most popular smartphone in the UK, and we are looking to emulate that with our tablet devices.”

Different strokes

More big names are getting involved to compete with Apple. The second half of 2011 will see Android-based models arrive from Sony and – according to reports – Amazon, building on the success of its Kindle e-reader.

“Apple is very slick, including its own OS,” admits Chris Trewhitt, product manager for Sony, “so you’ve got to have some points of differentiation. We’ve tried to come up with something different. If you look at other Android devices that have recently launched, they look very similar and don’t offer anything different between themselves.”

Sony’s tablets – the S1 and S2 – have entertainment-orientated features including access to games through the PlayStation Suite and the clever ability to ‘throw’ video, photos or music from the device onto another, such as a TV connected to the home network or a radio equipped with Wi-Fi. The S1 has a 9.4-inch screen and is tapered like a folded magazine. Its centre of gravity is in the thicker end, which makes the device feel lighter in the hand. It also has built-in infrared so it can act as a universal remote control. In contrast, the S2 uses a folding dual-screen arrangement, making it pocket sized. 

“The iPad has first-mover advantage and is currently something of ‘category-killer’ in tablets, accounting for over 90% of shipments in 2010,” says Elena Prykhodko from Futuresource. “The near-term dominance by the iPad is likely to reduce as more mainstream Windows and Android tablet products are brought to market by major computing and mobile brands, and as Asia-Pacific increases in regional market importance, especially China. However, given its momentum and content collateral, the iPad is likely to account for a minimum 60-70% of tablet shipments in the next two to three years.”

At your leisure

The potential crossover with home entertainment devices is significant and, also to some extent, with higher-end appliances. Because more consumer electronics and electrical items now connect to home networks and the internet, they can interact with wireless handheld gadgets in or outside the home. Control and automation of various electrical goods via tablets and smartphones is fast becoming an integrated feature, as are relatively affordable systems for managing heating and lighting. 

Besides web browsing, email and social media applications (Facebook, Twitter and so on), the tablet is particularly suited to media consumption, such as looking at video, photos and e-books or playing games. A good example of a complementary app is Sky’s Remote Record. This enables users to search or browse TV programmes and set them to record on their Sky+ PVR without needing to touch the box’s own remote or switch away from what’s on the TV at the time, if they are even at home. Another ‘second screen’ development from the satellite broadcaster is the dedicated Sky News app for the iPad.

Futuresource’s research indicates that usage of tablets among early adopters has a strong entertainment and publishing emphasis. “The quality of the screen and touch control lends itself well to entertainment functionality,” says Elena Prykhodko. “Interaction between tablets and other screens like internet-connected TVs open up the possibility of interactive TV applications, content supplements to linear broadcasting, simulcasts and remote control functionality. A surprisingly high proportion of tablet users – an average of 25% across key European countries – also use them for work and information. Futuresource believes that professional and institutional tablet demand will grow; however the QWERTY keyboard is still an important feature for work and productivity.”

Given its involvement in both TV and mobile devices, Samsung has made some headway in this direction. “We believe that Smart connectivity will continue to be the biggest development for the rest of the year and beyond, says Amit Rullay, product manager at Samsung UK. “Connecting your Smart TV to your mobile phone or tablet is going to continue to increase as people embrace the technology. We recently launched the free Smart View app which enables users to turn their Samsung Galaxy S II into a second TV screen.”

The app is available now for Samsung’s Galaxy S II and later for other Galaxy devices. Smart View displays the content from Samsung’s Smart TVs on the mobile device’s screen over a Wi-Fi network. In reverse, the AllShare feature enables users to transfer media from its tablets and phones onto a Smart TV.

As more m
edia services migrate to becoming solely internet (or ‘cloud’) based, it means that devices with net-connectivity but relatively little on-board storage, such as tablets, will come into their own. The TV landscape in particular could see major changes as a result. Getting content regardless of location is part of a wider movement towards multiplatform devices and the so-called ‘TV everywhere’ phenomenon.

According to Amit Rullay, “Samsung is working with leaders in the world of content to create experiences that enhance TV viewing, whether that is through standalone Smart TV applications or more integrated services that run across devices and platforms. The TV offers a screen and communal experience that a handheld device simply can’t achieve. We are delivering next generation services that compliment the TV experience through handheld devices and vice-versa today.”

Mass consumption

It is clear that tablets eat into other device usage and may be cannibalising laptop sales. Smartphones are already blamed for declining sales for pocket camcorders such as the now discontinued Flip. Universal remote controls and handheld games consoles could be similarly affected, to name a few.

“The netbook market has already seen the impact from tablets, particularly in the high-end segment,” says Elena Prykhodko from Futuresource. “Dedicated e-readers continue to grow strongly because of the low price points and content availability with bundles from the likes of Amazon’s Kindle. If dedicated devices perform a particular function well, they will continue to have their place. The tablet will provide incremental business to the PC industry in the next three to four years, providing different functionality for consumers. Beyond this time the tablet is likely to impact the laptop market and potentially small-screen TV market as well.”

Over the next few years younger viewers in particular may turn to new electronic devices to watch movies and TV, and this demographic could drive what future services will be like. If sales dip in long-established product areas because of the effect of new handheld gadgets then – if you’ve not already done so – it could be time for retailers to start taking the tablets.

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