Looking back at 2011: ‘The year of the tablet’ falls flat

Apple rocked the consumer electronics industry when it launched the “magical and revolutionary iPad” in April 2010. It wasn’t the first media tablet aimed at the consumer market by any means, but it was the first that consumers actually wanted. Following the iPad’s unveiling, Apple’s rivals scrambled to build tablets of their own and market research firms were quick to herald 2011 as “the year of the tablet.” More than 100 different tablets were unveiled at the Consumer Electronics Show in 2011, the bulk employing Android to power their user experiences, and the year of the tablet was upon us. Read on for more.

Among all of the slates on display at CES 2011, Motorola’s XOOM was undoubtedly the star of the show. It would launch as the first Android 3.0 Honeycomb tablet and enthusiasts were excited to get their hands on the first Android slate with a true tablet OS. Motorola and Verizon’s marketing efforts would pay off to an extent, and demand for the device was solid — Motorola shipped 250,000 XOOM tablets during the slate’s first quarter of availability, 440,000 units during its second quarter and another 400,000 tablets last quarter. Unfortunately, the XOOM ended up being the exception to the rule.

Barring a handful of successful slates — the most notable of which are likely the Barnes & Noble Nook Color, the Asus Eee Pad Transformer and the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 — the bulk of Android tablets came and went without any amount of consumer interest worth measuring. Android wasn’t the only game in town, however, and anticipated offerings carrying two other platforms that had been generating a bit of a buzz would be introduced as well.

One came from Research In Motion, and it was the first device to launch with the vendor’s next-generation operating system based on QNX. The BlackBerry PlayBook was released in select markets on April 19th, and the world watched as RIM’s debut slate hit store shelves. Unfortunately, watching is the only thing most consumers did. While a number of early adopters enjoyed RIM’s tablet, sales didn’t come anywhere close to meeting expectations and RIM would eventually be forced to take a $485 million charge related to unsold PlayBook inventory. The company shipped 500,000 PlayBook tablets during the device’s first quarter of availability, 200,000 during its second and just 150,000 units last quarter.

Sadly, the PlayBook isn’t even the worst tablet story 2011 would have to offer.

Only July 1st, Hewlett-Packard launched the HP TouchPad. Six weeks later, HP said it was discontinuing the production of all webOS hardware including the TouchPad tablet. The company would go on to announce that webOS, which it gained ownership of as part of its $1.2 billion Palm acquisition, would be open-sourced.

Now, as 2011 draws to a close, 2012 is again being called “the year of the tablet.” A stunning lack of differentiation from rival offerings left Apple’s iPad 2 as the only indisputable tablet success story in 2011, but many analysts and industry watchers seem to think the tide will turn the coming year.

Two promising slates hit the market in late 2011 — the Amazon Kindle Fire and the Barnes & Noble Nook Tablet — and sales expectations are high. Google also unveiled its next-generation Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich operating system recently, and the first wave of ICS tablets is expected to be revealed in a few short weeks at CES 2012. It remains to be seen if Google’s updated platform will offer an experience compelling enough to draw real consumer interest, however.

Of course Windows 8 is due in 2012 as well, and expectations are high for an OS that could potentially bring a more usable and elegant interface to tablets with desktop-like utility. Current Windows tablets are bulky and awkward, but Microsoft’s Metro UI could be part of a package that finally helps Microsoft gain ground in the tablet space.

Tablets have plenty to offer, taking the portability and convergence that made smartphones popular and presenting it to the consumer in a larger package. Differentiation, a solid catalog of third-party apps and a compelling user experience are among the key elements competitors will need in order to gain ground as the battle against Apple’s iPad continues, however, and whether or not vendors are up for the challenge in 2012 remains to be seen.

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