Twelve months ago the tablet PC market was pretty much nonexistent.
With the exception of media tablet devices from the likes of Archos, the tablet PC had quietly crawled into a corner and died several years earlier.
However, all that changed when Apple announced the iPad and now tablets are the hottest consumer electronics devices out there.
The key differentiator between the iPad and previous attempts at tablet PCs was that Apple didn't try to shoehorn a full-blown computer operating system onto the device.
In essence, the iPad was a really big iPod touch, and as simplistic as that sounds, it didn't stop it flying off the shelves. People who had never even heard of tablet PCs suddenly had to have one.
Now every consumer electronics manufacturer out there is either launching or developing a tablet device to compete with the iPad. So what will 2011 have in store for this new breed of tablet loving consumers?
Apple iPad 2
There's no point ignoring the elephant in the room, so we'll kick off with the inevitable iPad 2. Will the iPad 2 be Apple's difficult second album, or will it just be a refinement of the market leading product? Our money's on the latter.
When the iPhone 3G launched, it addressed the majority of the iPhone's shortcomings. This time around there's not a whole lot that needs fixing, but we can expect Apple to make enough improvements to convince any fence-sitting consumer to take the plunge.
It's a safe bet that the iPad 2 will sport front and rear facing cameras. Apple has made a big fuss over its FaceTime video calling feature in the iPhone 4, so it's hardly a stretch to assume that the iPad 2 will come suitably FaceTime equipped. Also, the lack of any type of camera in the original iPad saw much criticism.
Bumps in processor speed and memory are also likely. With iOS 4.2 allowing multitasking on the iPad, a bit of extra grunt and memory won't go amiss. An increase in screen resolution (surely on the upgrade list) would also make an increase in CPU speed prudent.
But the biggest question mark hangs over form factor. Will the iPad 2 be available in different sizes? With many competing tablet devices adopting a 7-inch screen, will Apple offer a smaller version of the iPad? The current iPad can feel a bit large and heavy when reading an e-book or watching a movie, but Apple has oft stated that the large screen is part of the iPad experience.
For a full rundown, check out our iPad 2 rumours feature.
RIM BlackBerry PlayBook
The BlackBerry PlayBook has received a lot of attention over the past couple of months, and that's not surprising. Not only is it the first tablet device to spring forth from the BlackBerry stables, but it also sports the most advanced hardware specs yet seen.
With a 1GHz dual-core CPU, 1GB of RAM and a pair of cameras (front and rear facing), the PlayBook certainly ticks all the right boxes. Like the recently launched Samsung Galaxy Tab, the Playbook will be a seven-inch device, making it smaller and lighter than the iPad, which is a good thing, assuming you don't value a large screen above all.
Of course hardware is only part of the equation, and BlackBerry's Tablet OS will have to prove itself against the established Apple and Google operating systems. The BlackBerry App World is also nowhere near as mature as Apple's App Store or even Android's Market.
With the PlayBook pencilled in for an early 2011 launch in the US, it won't have much of a run before the iPad 2 rears its head. And with RIM planning a European launch in mid 2011, it could actually appear after Apple's refreshed tablet.
For more, check out our in-depth technology breakdown of the BlackBerry PlayBook.
Android 3.0 Honeycomb
Although we've seen a glut of Android-based tablet devices appear in recent months, Froyo, or Android 2.2, isn't ideally suited to a tablet form factor.
Samsung may have done a sterling job in making Froyo behave admirably on the Galaxy Tab, but the fact remains that we're going to have to wait for version 3.0 of Android for a truly slick tablet experience.
Up until recently, the general assumption was that Gingerbread would be version 3.0 of Android, but that proved not to be the case. Gingerbread has just launched as version 2.3 of Android, so we're going to have to wait a little while for version 3.0, and the enhanced tablet functionality that comes with it.
What we do know is that Android 3.0 will be called Honeycomb, and it will be a very tablet friendly operating system. In fact, even though Gingerbread has just launched, Google's Andy Rubin recently showed off a device running Honeycomb, and that device was a prototype tablet from Motorola (below).
With Google already willing to show new hardware running Honeycomb, we suspect that the gap between versions 2.3 and 3.0 of Android will be minimal. We could see Honeycomb rolled out in early 2011, perhaps even ahead of the impending iPad 2 launch.
If Honeycomb can really enhance the Android tablet experience, it could make life hard for Apple. That said, the iPad has already won the hearts, minds and wallets of so many consumers, so we'll need to see something pretty special come out of the Android stable to steal Apple's thunder.
HP webOS joins the party
A year ago the only tablet rumour that was really competing with the iPad was the HP Slate. The Slate was discussed constantly in the tech press and shown off by HP on numerous occasions.
It was no surprise to see HP with a tablet device, since the company had produced tablet PCs years ago when Microsoft was pushing the concept. It was equally unsurprising that the HP Slate was set to run Windows 7 as its operating system.
However, after Apple announced the iPad, all went quiet in the HP Slate camp until eventually rumours started to surface that the device had been canned. Then HP bought Palm, and all of Palm's technology, including the webOS operating system, as used by the Palm Pre smartphone.
You didn't need a slide rule to figure out that HP saw webOS as a potential solution for its tablet hardware, and the company has confirmed that it will be releasing a webOS driven tablet device in early 2011. How early remains to be seen, but a pre-iPad 2 launch certainly wouldn't hurt.
There's little doubt that the PalmPad – the rumoured name of the forthcoming device – could be a compelling addition to the tablet market.
With HPs exceptional hardware know-how and the undeniably impressive webOS providing an intuitive user interface, the PalmPad looks like a strong proposition for 2011. As with the BlackBerry PlayBook, however, the level of app support will be leagues behind Apple.
Oh, and the latest rumours are that the Slate is back in the plan, with the Slate 500 (above) recently confirmed (again). So HP could be bringing both webOS and Windows 7 tablets to market in 2011.
And there's more…
It's clear that 2011 is going to be a big year for tables, and everything mentioned here is just the tip of the iceberg. With the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas only weeks away, we're likely to see a whole host of new tablets announced, previewed or launched.
Of course we'll be out at CES 2011, pushing our way through the crowds and grabbing every new tablet device that we can get our paws on. So, check back in January to see how the tablet PC market is looking as 2011 kicks off.
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