It’s been a while since we touched on the tablet market, but that’s because — for the most part — everyone is in waiting mode.
While a few manufacturers have released new models in the past few months — including Samsung‘s (SSNLF) new Galaxy 3 Tablets and Sony‘s (SNE) 10-inch Xperia Tablet Z – most are waiting for the end of summer.
The Galaxy 3′s 8-inch model is aimed squarely at Apple’s 7.9-inch iPad Mini, offering similar specs at a cheaper $300 price point. Also, the 10-inch version of the Galaxy Tab 3 marks a milestone for Intel (INTC), as a dual-core Intel Atom CPU powers the tablet.
Meanwhile Sony’s gadget is the world’s thinnest tablet of that size, and waterproof to boot. Sony sent me one to play with a few weeks ago and it was a beautiful tablet — the first Android model I’d consider ditching my iPad for.
The news coming out of names like Barnes & Noble (BKS) and BlackBerry (BBRY), on the other hand, hasn’t been quite as good. The end of the Nook line has been expected for a while, especially after Microsoft announced a deal to buy B&N’s e-book business. After seeing revenue from the Nook tablet — once the best-selling Android tablet — drop 34% in its last quarter, B&N announced it’s ceasing in-house production of the device.
Meanwhile BlackBerry’sPlayBook, the company’s $1.5 billion tablet misstep, also appears to have hit the end of its road. BlackBerry still managed to sell 100,000 PlayBooks in the last quarter but announced it will not be getting an operating system upgrade to BB10 — effectively marking the end of the device.
But forget the laggards. Let’s look at what’s to come. Last year, the three big developments were the push to high-pixel density displays, a move to a smaller form factor (with Apple bowing to market pressure with its iPad Mini) and Microsoft’s surprise entry into the tablet market, with its Surface tablets and their innovative touch covers.
This year, manufacturers are under pressure to extend those high-resolution displays into their smaller models. If there’s a theme for 2013, it’s likely to be making devices thinner, lighter, faster and more energy-efficient, with displays as crisp and bright as possible.
Here’s a breakdown of the four major players, and what to expect.
The iPad Mini quickly turned into Apple’s bestseller, despite its considerable price premium over 7-inch offerings from Amazon and Google. Now, Apple is under pressure to release a new version that addresses the Mini’s key fault — its relatively low-resolution display.
We’re also watching for a fifth generation iPad that employs the Mini’s narrow bezel and a more efficient battery to slim down. And Apple will be introducing a radically redesigned iOS 7 that promises to refresh its tablet user experience.
Google’s Nexus 7 tablet (made by Asus) has proved reasonably popular. Estimates have around 4.6 million sold in the second half of 2012. The bigger Nexus 10 (made by Samsung) with the Retina-beating 2560 x 1,600 pixel display — not so much. As of April, estimates had less than a million being sold.
Look for spec-bumped Nexus 10 in the fall and a more aggressively upgraded Nexus 7 (with higher resolution display, faster CPU and thinner bezel) to arrive as soon as July. According to Reuters, Google is hoping to move 6-8 million of the new Nexus 7s this year.
While it appears to have lost one rival in Barnes & Noble’s Nook, Apple’s foray into smaller, cheaper tablets appears to have hurt Amazon last holiday season. Sales of its Kindle Fire tablets are thought to be down (Amazon doesn’t release numbers) and at the time of writing, Amazon has the devices marked down to the point where a 7-inch Kindle Fire HD can be had for $169 — this after dropping larger Kindle Fire prices in March.
It looks as though Amazon is going to continue to try to compete on price (hoping to make up any hardware loses by selling content). TechCrunch for one, is predicting a $99 7-inch Kindle Fire HD later this year.
Microsoft introduced two tablets last year that were two different platforms. RT tablets used ARM (ARMH) CPUs, running Windows RT and apps. The Windows 8 Pro tablets were much heftier, used Intel’s PC CPUs and ran Windows 8 with ability to install and run desktop Windows software. Consumers were confused and Microsoft has struggled to convince developers to release apps for the platform. RT has turned into a bit of a disaster, with poor sales and hardware partners backing off.
Look for Microsoft and its partners to push out cheaper 7-inch RT tablets in time for the holidays in the hope of goosing sales. A 7-inch Windows 8 tablet is a possibility — the Surface Pro’s $899 base price may be acceptable for business but is prohibitively expensive to consumers — but Windows 8 and PC software may not scale so well to such a small display.
The tablet market may be relatively quiet at the moment, but don’t expect that to last. With PC shipments continuing to slide, tablet sales now accelerating at a faster pace than smartphones and Apple’s stranglehold on consumers broken, competition for consumer back-to-school and holiday tablet dollars will be fierce.
As of this writing, Brad Moon did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.