Three years on: the state of the tablet market

22 Apr 2013
Tablets

Three years after he devoted a column to tablets for business, Paul Ockenden examines the current state of play

If the noughties was the decade of the smartphone, the tensies (is that what we’re calling it?) is the decade of the tablet.

There’s little doubt that tablet sales kept many a struggling high-street retailer afloat last Christmas, and evidence the tablet has become a mainstream device is all around us, from full-page adverts in the national press to little old ladies playing Angry Birds on the bus. The BBC has just announced that tablets have overtaken smartphones in terms of devices accessing the iPlayer.

Almost three years ago, I devoted a whole column to tablets, and wondered whether had become serious business tools or were they still just toys. I even tried to write that very column on an iPad (you might remember that I failed). So, how have things moved on since then?

Three years is a long time when it comes to technology, so you might expect tablets to be radically different by now, but they’re not. That isn’t a bad thing, though. What we’ve seen is evolution rather than revolution. Tablets have slowly improved both in terms of their physical hardware and their operating systems.

Apple’s iOS still looks just the same (some might say it’s even starting to look dated), and although today’s iPads are quite a bit slimmer, the hardware really doesn’t look much different. The Android user interface has moved on and looks somewhat different today, but underneath the make-up it’s still much the same.

What has changed is the quality of Android tablet hardware. There are still a few not-so-good examples around – I even spotted one with a resistive screen the other day – but those are few and far between. Even at the lowest price point, some of the kit isn’t too bad. I mentioned a £35 tablet on Twitter recently and a couple of you went out and bought one (I wasn’t expecting that). The general consensus was that it’s actually quite impressive.

Playing by the book

Remember, too, that Apple and Android are no longer the only players in the tablet market; we now have Microsoft with Windows 8 and Windows RT, and of course there’s BlackBerry’s PlayBook too. Windows 8 makes much more sense running on a tablet than on a desktop or laptop – its Modern interface actually becomes a help rather than a hindrance. Microsoft’s Surface hardware is very good, too; its main downsides being the somewhat upscale pricing (compared to Android rather than Apple) and its sparse and poor-quality selection of apps.

Apps are a weakness for the PlayBook as well, although the tools BlackBerry has created to easily port Android apps certainly help (and if you’re prepared to do a little fiddling you can use a technique called sideloading to run many Android apps natively). Where the PlayBook really wins out is on price. Its original version is available for spectacularly small sums: the 64GB can be picked up for around £120 if you shop around, compared to £430 for the same-sized iPad mini. This is a real bargain, considering its high build quality. The other day, for example, my local PC warehouse was selling 64GB flash drives for more than the price of a 64GB PlayBook.

At the time of writing, most PlayBooks are running OS 2 or 2.1, but at some point in the near future we should see a version of BlackBerry 10 – the new OS on the company’s latest phones – appear as an over-the-air upgrade. Despite that 7.9 increase in version number, the differences won’t be huge. OS 2.1 is already a great tablet operating system, with many innovations that go beyond what iOS and Android offer. What should improve, though, is the selection of apps, as BlackBerry has devoted plenty of time and cash to persuade developers to make their wares available when BlackBerry 10 OS devices hit the market.

Turning the page

When I wrote that tablet column three years ago, one of my biggest concerns was the lack of professional software and, perhaps more importantly, the lack of professional features in so-called business apps.

For example, I complained that Apple’s word-processing app Pages didn’t even have a word count – something that’s essential for any professional writer. As it turns out, within a couple of weeks of me writing that column a new version of Pages came out with a built-in word count. A more immodest writer might claim credit for this, but I was only one of many thousands crying out for this essential feature.

You’ll find that many professional writers use a piece of software called Scrivener on their desktops or laptops, which is a brilliant tool targeted at those who churn out words for a living. It isn’t only suitable for journalists and authors, but also those who write corporate reports, proposals and so on.