While BlackBerry CEO Thorsten Heins has predicted the death of the tablet within five years, distributors, solution providers and analysts see a much sunnier tablet forecast. They're predicting continued growth in the market, along with a trend toward users carrying around an increasing number of mobile devices.
"With the acceleration of the commercial side of the market adopting more tablets, I think we're only limited by the applications that run on them, said Joe Quaglia, senior vice president of U.S. marketing and president of TDMobility at Tech Data Corp., which had tablet sales of $2 billion last year. "We're only in the infancy stages of developing them for health, education [and other verticals] … and the innovation needs to come from the applications." OEMs will continue to innovate to improve on the functionality of notebooks, desktops, tablets and ultrabooks to deliver a better level of service, he said, adding that he sees the market "getting really creative in terms of leveraging mobility products like tablets to be more competitive in the marketplace."
Better than anticipated sales of tablets worldwide in the first quarter of 2013 also indicate that at least for the time being, tablets are comfortably holding their own. Both Apple and Samsung performed above expectations, according to IDC, and were instrumental in driving tablets shipments to 49.2 million units for the quarter, the research firm reported. ASUS managed to move into the third vendor spot with "decent tablet shipment demand" for its Nexus 7 device, IDC said, followed by Amazon, which fell to the number four position. For the first time, Microsoft made it into the top five, as shipments of its Surface RT and Surface Pro tablets combined were at almost 900,000 units. However, IDC said Windows-8-based and Windows-RT-based tablets "continued to struggle to gain traction in the market," with shipments across all vendors reaching 1.8 million units. In fact, Acer's chairman, J.T. Wang, told The Wall Street Journal recently that the company is underwhelmed with RT and hasn't decided if it will launch an RT-based tablet.
Forrester is predicting a global tablet forecast of 375 million units in 2016. Others also believe the tablet still has a healthy lifespan and has not yet reached a saturation point, given that many apps are being ported to mobile devices.
"The tablet market continues to be a big variable in the transformation of how applications are being delivered," said Mike French, chief marketing officer at solutions provider Presidio Inc., which is based in New York. "The expectation from end users has changed and IT consumption models have changed. Tablets are a driving force from both the workforce and the consumer in how they want their information delivered securely, any place and anytime."
Presidio started seeing real momentum in the tablet space two years ago. French said last year was a pivotal year as BYOD in the workplace became a top concern for many CIOs in both the midmarket and the enterprise. "I don't think it has reached its peak yet," he said.
Consumers and prosumers now have so many choices on the best ways to do their computing and get access to content, noted Quaglia, and it's not unusual for them to own four or five mobile devices. "What's driving the use [of different devices] is the apps being developed for those prosumers," he said. For example, he said, through one of its partners, Tech Data recently sold a large financial institution a high-end tablet rollout worth $8 million. He attributes that to a business-to-business commercial application that didn't previously exist "because the specific app and idea behind the usage hadn't been created yet.
"So the market, meaning the vendors and customers buying their products, [is] still reinventing the uses for tablets every single day because the mobile aspect of having a sales rep, a financial consultant or service technician in the field with access to information to solve problems and get orders faster is an incredible value proposition." This could never be done with tethered products, Quaglia added. He said he believes that this in part will be the reason why tablets -- as well as smartphones, Chromebooks and ultrabooks -- will continue to grow, which will "more than offset the lack of sales growth of heavier notebook models we've seen in the past few years."
Concurring with the others, Darryl Wilson, director of enterprise mobility at Dimension Data Americas, said that with more and more native apps being written for mobile devices, demand will grow even greater for tablets. "People don't want to carry around laptops any longer, and they will probably look to outfit their teams with tablets, phablets and smartphones,'' he said, and added that he regularly carries three or four devices, since he likes to consume content from a tablet or smartphone but create content on a laptop with a keyboard and mouse.
"The key for the Apples of the world is to continue to innovate with new features and functionality and new form factors between the iPad mini and iPhone. I don't see the tablet going away … in the next five years. We're seeing laptop manufacturers turn laptops into tablets with touchscreens. … Everyone's trying to solve all problems for all people for all devices. All mobile devices have a use case and that's the story."
As for the next great technology that will impact tablet sales, French thinks that "wearable IP is probably right around the corner" as a business tool, although it is more of a consumer product right now.
Wilson concurs that Google's Glass technology and smartwatches embedded with Bluetooth will be "supporting devices," but thinks they will have limited use because of their small screen sizes. "You hear about the Internet of Everything; that's truly going to be the next wave and having all these devices participating."
There's no question there are more devices and more form factors on the horizon and businesses need to figure out how to enable use of them securely on corporate networks to ensure employee productivity, said Wilson. "I don't think the challenge is around what is the next device, but organizations having a framework to make sure they can bring these devices on," he said. "There's always going to be a new shiny toy with new capabilities and innovations, and I'm really excited about the next five years."