Tablet wars

originally published by CBAPracticeLink

The iPad has dominated the market, but its competitors are coming on strong. It means more choice than ever for demanding professionals who know what they need.

They’ve been commercially available for a decade, but tablets really only captured the public’s imagination when Apple Inc. introduced the iPad in 2010. Since then, Apple has sold millions of iPads to consumers and, increasingly, businesses.

But Apple is hardly alone. The competition has taken note of its success and is ready to take a bite out of the lucrative – and growing – tablet market.

Here are some issues to keep in mind if you’re thinking of buying.

Third-party applications

Despite the buzz about the iPad and the capable software it ships with, tablets are mainly blank slates where third-party software developers can work their magic. Before you shop for a tablet, look for applications (such as document readers, annotation and research tools) that you want to use on a tablet. Then make sure those applications are available for any tablets you’re considering.

Multitasking

Keeping several applications open at the same time has been standard practice for decades in the computer market. Today’s tablets must do the same without overtaxing batteries or sacrificing performance.

Ease of use

Pinch. Swipe. Tap. Tilt. Instant-on. These actions, meaningless on a computer yet almost self-explanatory on a tablet, are what make current tablets all the rage.

Ted Tjaden, national director of knowledge management for McMillan LLP in Toronto, “pinches” his iPad’s screen to zoom in and out of documents and web pages, such as LexisNexis and WestLaw. “It’s great for my aging eyes,” he says.

Internet connectivity

Tablet users expect to connect to the Internet using WiFi. Phone carriers might subsidize tablets that feature cellular connectivity, much like mobile handsets.

Battery power

The iPad runs 10 hours (a full day for most people) on a single charge. “I always struggled with power cords and battery life [using laptops in court],” says Dan Michaluk, a Toronto-based partner with employment and labour law firm Hicks Morley LLP.

“Moving a laptop from hearing room to hallway for conversations, to caucus with clients, was always a problem. With an iPad, I don’t have to apologize for a power cord.”

Portability (weight and thickness)

Expect tablets to weigh less than one kilogram. Motorola’s Xoom is even thinner than the iPad at a svelte 12.9 mm thick.

“If you can put whatever material you read on your tablet, it enables you to use otherwise idle time doing something you need to do,” says David Canton, business lawyer and trademark agent with London, Ont., firm Harrison Pensa LLP.

Screen size

A tablet’s screen makes many applications (such as document and book readers, web browsers and e-mail) much easier to use than on a smartphone. Most tablet screens measure seven inches and up to deliver that usability.

Price

Expect tablet prices to stay below four figures.

The competition

In 2010, tablets other than the iPad were largely considered subpar. In 2011, that’s beginning to change, though it remains to be seen which competitors will prove to be popular. “Because people can’t get their hands on these things, it’s hard to get objective opinions,” Canton notes.

Caveat: Several tablet launches announced in January 2010 were quietly scuttled after the iPad announcement, so don’t assume specific devices mentioned in this article will be available until manufacturers actually ship them.

Research in Motion Playbook

A perennial darling among lawyers, RIM gives its BlackBerry a playmate in 2011, complete with a long-needed upgrade to RIM’s trusted but tired-looking BlackBerry OS.

Google Android

Phone manufacturers and third-party software developers have turned Android into a smartphone star. In the Apple chase pack, Android currently enjoys the greatest momentum among developers creating applications for Android-based smartphones.

As of this writing, tablets presently on the market use a version of Android tailored to smartphones, not tablets. (Tablet versions of Android have been announced.) Even so, the Dell Streak and Samsung Galaxy Tab have started the Android tablet ball rolling.

Microsoft Windows

Long-time Microsoft loyalist Dell has released the Inspiron Duo, useable as a traditional notebook or a touch-screen tablet running Windows 7.

HP/Palm WebOS

In 2010, Hewlett Packard bought PDA pioneer Palm Inc., along with its critically acclaimed but slow-selling WebOS-powered smartphones. Look for HP to market WebOS-powered tablets in 2011 or 2012.

Apple iPad version 2

“Apple will continue to innovate,” Canton notes. “They make their own products obsolete before their competition does.” Rumoured developments in the next-generation iPad include front-and-back cameras and a carbon fibre case to reduce weight.

Beyond the iPad

Don’t expect any other tablet to outsell the iPad anytime soon. Do expect competitors to approach tablet design in ways Apple won’t in order to differentiate their products. Here’s a short list of features Apple’s competitors hope will induce people to consider their product.

Familiar file management system

“North American lawyers use Microsoft Office on Microsoft Windows with C: drives and folders,” Tjaden says. “On an iPad, you can’t go to the File menu and choose Save As. That’s an adjustment.”

Enterprise readiness

Apple does not have a reputation of catering to IT decision-makers. “RIM is trying to play that card,” Canton says. “Microsoft probably wants to do that too.”

“The iPad is a personal project for me,” Michaluk admits. “I’m waiting for a device that’s an easier sell to the IT department.”

Physical keyboard

Certain slates will feature physical keyboards instead of the on-screen virtual version. The Samsung 7 Series keyboard, for instance, slides out like the keyboard on “slider” mobile phones. The ASUS Eee Pad Transformer, which resembles a traditional netbook, features a screen that detaches from the keyboard to become a touch-only device.

Removable media

Apple’s iPad offers no USB or other ports, no card readers, no physical way to put information onto the tablet, a design decision that irks people who want to use removable media with tablets.

Controlled access

“Open” computing proponents slam the iPad for not allowing users to install content from a wide variety of different sources as opposed to controlled channels such as Apple’s iTunes Store.

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