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The Rise of Tablets

The Rise Of Tablets - Infographic from skyrocket on Vimeo.

In 2011, consumers bought 60,000,000 tablets. That’s huge. Especially because consumer tablets didn’t start coming out in force until 2010 with the Apple iPad. You may remember that even when the iPad came out, it was an object of ridicule — at least at first. It was easy to make jokes about the name of course, but it was also common to hear the iPad referred to as an “over-sized iPod touch” due to it’s similarity with Apple’s touch-screen music player.

Obviously, the wise-cracking didn’t last very long and people didn’t just buy tablets as useless techno-bobbles. They used them extensively once got their hands on them and very quickly tablets were integrated into people’s daily lives. In 2011, 68% of tablet users spent at least one hour a day on their device. While they were on it, 25% consumed news, 30% played games, 39% used social media, 54% sent emails, and a whopping 72% shopped online. That’s a pretty wide range of uses, so maybe tablets aren’t just ‘over-sized’ touch-screen mp3 players after all.

In fact, tablets have quickly become commonplace these days — they’re used in schools, businesses, and of course by everyday consumers. But, not too long ago tablets were the domain of early adopter techies. So, why did a class of devices that really has been around since the 90’s take off so suddenly in 2011?

There are, of course, a plethora of factors involved, but we tend to think of 3 reasons why:

Developments in tablet-tech

The idea of a portable, flat computing device has been around for a while, from 1950s science fiction novels to Star Trek: The Next Generation. But, actual executions on the idea didn’t take off until the early 90s. Even then, the results were...mediocre at best.

That all changed with the release of the iPad. This perfect consumer device seemed to come out of nowhere, but was really made up of incremental technological advances, the two most important of which were:

  1. ARM processors: These chips were designed with portable computing in mind. They prolong battery life by using a fraction of the power found in traditional desktops and laptops. They are suitable for internet browsing, media consumption, and minor production work — all the things the end user would actually want to do with a tablet, without the power-waste of a larger processor.
  1. Capacitive touchscreens: Tablets of the past used what’s called a ‘resistive’ touchscreen. These are very accurate, but require a stylus to operate. This makes them good for high-end graphic design work, but not so much for the average consumer who just want to play Angry Birds in bed. Enter the Capacitive touchscreen around 2007 with the successful introduction of the Apple iPhone. This type of screen is less accurate, but can be controlled by chubby human fingers instead of relying on the acute point of a stylus. These two technologies combined led to tablets that were engaging and fun to use. It’s also perhaps why people spend 54% longer on websites using their tablets than on a desktop.

This new technology helped to make tablets experiential — apps include touch, sight, and sound which all drive engagement — and interactive: people are more receptive to messages they can actually interact with, rather that passively consuming media.

Major cultural events

The news was also a major influence on the apparent meteoric ascent of tablets in 2011. Well, at least the influx of newsworthy stories around the tech was. Apple was constantly in the news. Notably when one of their famous founders Steve Jobs passed away, as well as during an extremely well-publicized legal battle between tech giants Apple and Samsung. Guess what this legal snafu was about? Tablet (and other hardware) design of course. All this brought the public eye onto Apple — and therefore their new tablet computer the iPad — more than ever.

Developments in parallel technologies

The last factor in the rise of the tablets was the other technology that developed around the same time. The late 2000s marked the rise of the ultra-book: thin, sleekly designed laptops like the Macbook Air and the Acer Aspire S3. When these first came out, they were speculated to merely be the playthings of the wealthy. However, their success far exceeded expectations. It turns out that people value portability, weight, and style over screen size, processing power, and high end graphics. This ‘mobility over power’ mindset started by ultra-books certainly carried over into tablets, contributing to the ultra-fast adoption of the devices.

Lastly, the ecosystem for apps really came into its own in 2011. The Apple App Store passed 15 billion downloads in July while the Google Play Store reported 10 Billion in the same year. The engagement with mobile applications hit critical mass this year, paving the way for tablets to move into a living and dynamic app ecosystem.

Both the consumer success of light, portable ultra-books, and fully fleshed out app ecosystems helped to propel tablets into common usage in 2011. Along with hardware developments, major publicity, and a bit of luck, tablet usage rocketed in 2011, and has only grown since.