Is it just me, or does it seem like practically everyone is trying to sell you a tablet these days?
Seriously, it’s practically impossible to keep up with all the new tablets that keep popping up. Although there were plenty of tablets that existed there before the iPad was released back in 2010 (support for pen-based input on a computer designed for the purpose dates all the way back to Windows 3.1,) most of them toiled in obscurity, generally relegated to specialized tasks and a few diehards that were willing to put up with their quirks and limitations. I’ve long observed that for a certain large segment of the target audience of computer buyers, any novel new technology introduced to the public (especially if Microsoft is the company doing the introduction) is largely rejected by most as being a pointless waste of time, right up until Apple makes something similar, at which point it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread. This seems to happen regardless of the actual merits of the technology in question (although I will say lately the naysayers have had a point in many cases, and skepticism toward Apple’s offerings seems to be on the rise even if the sales don’t really reflect it) and has been happening for long enough that a lot of people just accept it as part of the realities of the market.
Nonetheless, regardless of what you happen to think of it as a product, there’s no denying the impact that the iPad had on the market when it was introduced. Even though speculation about Apple’s entry into the tablet market had been rampant for months beforehand, when the iPad actually showed up it was disruptive in a way that few products have ever been disruptive before. And at the time the iPad was introduced, I was in a bit of an odd position that gave me an inadvertent front-row seat to the whole thing. It was about a month or so after I had been laid off from my most recent (and as of right now last) Microsoft contract working on a forgettable project for a dysfunctional team, and somehow I had landed a short-term gig with a small company in need of some testing for an iPhone app they were working on (which is a rather interesting story by itself, but that’s beside the point right now) in spite of my total experience with iPhones being about ten minutes on demo kiosks at the time (which was still about ten minutes more time than I had spent using Android phones.) Nonetheless, I managed to go in and make enough of an impact that what was supposed to be a two-week contract turned into seven months, and seriously changed the direction of my career for the better.
And even though I’ve never been a big Apple fan, I do firmly believe that the introduction of the iPad in February of 2010 contributed significantly to this. At the time, we were working on a number of (mostly) iPhone projects for MTV, but as soon as the iPad was introduced, they immediately wanted iPad apps, to the point that we were instructed to all but drop what we were doing and switch our development efforts to an iPad version of the app we had been working on. The artists (one of whom had to be brought back after having finished his work and moving on) had to redo basically all of the animations in the app to match the higher screen resolution (this was back when 1024×768 could still be considered “HD” for marketing purposes) and a fair bit of the code had to be redone as well. Since basically nobody smaller than a Fortune 500 company had any chance of getting hold of the actual iPad hardware prior to launch (and even the ones fortunate enough to have it had to deal with some pretty ridiculous NDAs and security procedures set forth by Apple) we had to work with the iOS simulator included in the SDK to try to test things as well as we could, but even then there was no guarantee that any of the stuff would actually work. In spite of all this, we were able to get the Beavis and Butt-Head app for iPad into the App Store on the iPad’s launch day. It was for that reason, and that reason alone, that I actually bought an iPad on launch day (skipping the horrendous multi-hour Apple store lines at Bellevue Square in favor of the local Mac Store, where I was able to grab one with practically no waiting) mostly so I could download the app and see if it actually worked (it did, but not without a few glitches.) The iPhone version of the app that I was brought on to work on originally ended up not being released until nearly a month later, mostly because other iPad projects had relegated it to the back burner.
Of course, these days the iPad isn’t the only game in town the way it was back when it came out, although they do still command a significant share of the market. Microsoft, even though they were involved with the whole tablet thing long before most other competitors, was caught flat-footed by the iPad, took way too long to release a not-so-competitive competing product, and nearly four years later is still trying to play catch-up, mostly filling warehouses with unsold Surfaces in the process. Blackberry and HP’s attempts at taking on the tablet market with their own operating systems did little but leave both companies swimming in red ink (although HP does still maintain one Android-based tablet in their line-up.) Most of the action in the tablet market these days seems to be on the Android side, where it seems that just about everyone and their dog is making Android devices these days. On one side, you have the larger OEMs (Samsung, Asus, Acer, Lenovo, Dell, etc.) putting out their own variations of Android tablets (plus a few Windows 8 based tablets on the side) and not making much effort to differentiate their products from everyone else’s similar products. Google, for their part, is selling their Nexus phones and tablets, mostly by merit of providing a “pure” Android experience free of the clutter and fluff prevalent on a lot of the other Android tablets. And then there’s Amazon with their Kindle Fires, which are technically Android tablets, but in reality they kind of exist in their own little world where the operating system is mostly just there to sell you their content. Throw in a couple of fringe competitors here and there, and you can start to see where this whole thing might start to get a bit confusing.
So, out of all that, what do you actually need if you’re looking for a tablet? I’m pretty sure I’m not the one to answer that question, since I can barely keep up with the announcements for all these things, much less actually use enough of them to form informed opinions on them. If you truly wanted to use just about everything you might use a tablet for, you’d want to have an iOS tablet, an Android tablet of some sort, a Windows 8 tablet (probably a real one, not an RT-based one) and possibly an Amazon tablet just for good measure, although there are other ways to consume most of the Amazon content on the other ones. Ultimately, the answer to the question of which tablet to get depends on your specific needs. I do have to admit that the iPad Air and the newer model iPad Mini do actually look rather compelling, to the point that for the first time since I bought my original iPad (which was orphaned by Apple rather quickly to the point that it never even got updated to iOS 6, even though the iPad 2 remains on store shelves three years after its release) I actually considered getting a new one. The $200 trade-in deal Target had a couple of weeks ago for any working iPad probably helped there too, although I ultimately ended up blowing the trade-in credit for my old iPad from that on buy-2-get-one-free video games a week later (but that’s another story for another post.) Of course, you’re going to be paying a premium to get the Apple logo on the back of your tablet, and in the case of the iPad Mini that premium is steep indeed, especially compared to some of the deals you can get out there for some of the more prominent Android tablets. On the Android side, the most recent Nexus 7 seems to be the most obvious choice, but if you’re looking for a bigger screen than that (and a lot of people are) the question gets a lot harder to answer. And as always, there seems to be no shortage of new releases looking to dethrone the reigning champion (with the latest challenger apparently being nVidia’s Tegra Note 7 platform. Then again, if you’re looking for a somewhat cheaper tablet and can deal with some trade-offs, I’ve actually been reasonably impressed with the Kindle Fire HD that I’ve been using as my primary tablet for the last year or so, but you do lose the Google apps and have to deal with the more limited software selection of the Amazon app store if you do go that route.)
The underlying problem with all this, of course, is that there’s no guarantee that any of this info is going to be valid for more than about five minutes or so. By the time you read this, I’m sure someone is going to have released some compelling new tablet that’s going to throw the whole thing off, and by the time we sort it all out from there we’ll get another tablet from someone else and the whole thing will start all over again. In just a matter of a couple of years tablets have gone from being a novelty to being a commodity, and a rather unstable one at that. When it’s getting to the point where you can just about have your pick of the lot for not much more than $200 or so (at least on the Android side of things,) it’s not surprising that people might not be getting too attached to their tablets. After all, why stick to just one when you can collect the whole set?