Apple has done it again: the iPad has turned heads, and suddenly we're seeing a torrent of tablets looking to build upon the iPad form factor in a variety of ways, offering better price points in some cases and varying functionality/focus in others. This industry shift is amazing when you think about it, since tablet PCs have been around in some form for many years but have hardly made a dent.

Let's start with what's coming down the pike this year, and then look at what it could mean for you.

Android tablets. There's been the most buzz about Android tablets, and their entry into the market has been the quickest. Already we have one Android tablet in the marketplace, Dell's Streak, though it's not available the US yet. (Should be in a month or two.) The Streak is a 5-inch horizontal tablet, ARMed with a 1GHz Snapdragon processor, 800x480 display, 512MB RAM, and a 2GB base memory with a microSD slot expandable to 32GB. At current UK pricing, the Streak unlocked costs $650, or is available for free with a monthly voice and data plan.

One last note about the Streak: it makes phone calls. This, in addition to its small tablet size, has sparked some controversy over if it's really a small tablet, a big phone, or something in between.

Here's a video on the Streak:

 

 

Acer is also working on an Android tablet: preliminary information indicates it will be 7 inches and have a QWERTY keyboard attached to the bottom, like a big BlackBerry, only not.

From there, all the other devices divulge into pure conjecture. Will Google market its own tablet too? Probably, eventually. Will other manufacturers make Android tablets? Sure, but with Asus and HP both working on Windows 7 tablets, it's up in the air if they'll invest in Android tablets too.

 

 

Windows 7  tablets. Speaking of which, let's take a look at what's going on with Windows 7 tablets. As you'd expect, Android tablets will probably compete more one-to-one with the iPad, designed especially with their app stores, great for playing games, watching video (Android tablets will have flash though), and pretty good for reading books (though they are all LCD screens). Meanwhile, I'd expect the Windows 7 tablets to specialize in, y'know, doing actual work.

The most definitive Windows 7 tablet is the Asus Eee Pad, a Windows 7 tablet that was previewed at Computex 2010 at the end of May.  The Eee Pad will come in two versions, 12 inch and 10-inch, and will be able to dock at a charging station with a dedicated keyboard. (See photo, courtesy of Engadget.)

 

Asus Eee Pad
Asus Eee Pad (source: engadget)

A very exciting device, but information is scarce in terms of specs and price, unfortunately. My best guess is that it'll fall somewhere in the price of netbooks, but try to stay below the iPad pricing, so maybe about $500-600. And of course, since it's on Windows 7, you'll be able to actually manage and secure the device like a computer. So if your employees are buying iPads and hoping they'll be accepted into the organizational ecosystem, you might want to tell them to hold on!

The other upcoming device is the HP Slate, based on information provided by Engadget from a leaked HP comparison chart comparing the Slate to the iPad. If this information is accurate and it sticks, we can expect the HP Slate to cost between $549-600; be 9 inches; have a 1.66GHz processor; 1GB RAM; and have Bluetooth, GPS, 3G. Pretty noteworthy. (As for what HP is planning with Palm's webOS platform, it's anyone's guess.)

BlackBerry tablet. There have been some rumors about a BlackBerry tablet. There's conflicting information online: some sites have said it'd be a companion device, meaning you need your BlackBerry smartphone to connect it to the Internet via Bluetooth. Other sources state it will be standalone, like other tablets. While some rumors have circulated that BlackBerry will release an Android tablet, this doesn't really make any sense, so I'm assuming (if RIM ever does release one) that it will run a modified BlackBerry OS. As to whether the tablet would target consumers or businesses—that's also up in the air. But after the Storm's failure, would RIM really try to push another customer-focused device?

It's just my two cents, but I don't think we'll ever see a BlackBerry tablet.

What to Expect and Where to Start

This evolving tablet form factor is more conducive to fun than work, so I expect the Android tablets to be very successful and gain a decent share of the market. (Though they'll still be playing catch up to the iPad for the forseeable future.) The Windows 7 tablets offer an interesting opportunity to have a tablet that can do some real work, but without an app store it's unlikely people will take them seriously on the consumer side. I'm assuming the Windows 7 tablets will partner with one of the major online bookstores to offer an online bookstore, which might make them a great option for late adopters who prefer a computer interface to a smartphone interface.

Individual devices will be hit or miss, but I think the market will find some room for all sorts of tablets. Windows 7 tablets will compete head-to-head with netbooks, while the iPad and Android tablets will be battling for market share with e-readers, portable gaming devices, and music players.

So what do you want in a tablet? Something to take to bed for a little bit of nightly reading or to catch up on your favorite YouTube channels? Or something to take on the subway in the morning to get caught up on email and read the morning paper? If you hold out for about 6-12 months, I'm sure you'll be able to find a tablet to meet just about any of these needs.

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