Tablet computers at the epicentre of convergence

14 Dec 2010

Convergence of consumer, communications and computing has been talked about for years but this is now a reality with the arrival of unifying devices like the iPad.

This will have massive implications for the technology world, spurring competition not only among varying types of products, but among entire industries, according to the market research firm iSuppli.

“The definition of convergence has changed over time, with the latest version describing it as voice, video and data services being delivered to the home vis-à-vis broadband networks and the new services that would result from this confluence,” said William Kidd, director and principal analyst, financial services for iSuppli.

“While that trend still exists, the convergence of consumer electronics devices and industries are now coming together at a fast pace, with the tablet form factor serving a tangible representation of that convergence, since it is part smartphone and part notebook.”

However, the implications of the convergence in consumer electronics span well beyond tablets.

The rise of the tablet parallels the growing importance of the mobile operating system (OS) in a large number of consumer electronics devices where previously there was no OS — or the OS wasn’t a factor, Kidd added.

Because of this, it’s a time of great risk and opportunity for all the players across the electronics value chain.

This is why so many technology firms seem to be rushing to deliver — or to become a key supplier to — a next-generation tablet, smartphone or both, like the iPad/iPhone. At the same time, these companies also are attempting to keep their design options somewhat open, because it is still so early in this product’s life cycle.

“Companies in the electronics value chain increasingly must face the reality that the rise of the mobile OS means distinct product categories now are blurring together,” Kidd said.

“For example, note the similarity both in external functionality and internal electronics between Apple’s tablet, smartphone, MP3 player and set top box product lines. Not only do they run the same OS, but all these Apple devices are internally similar, plus or minus a screen and touch interface.

“Industries likely to face the impact of convergence through the proliferation of mobile OSes include televisions, (mobile) phones and notebook PCs,” Kidd said.

Going mobile

Mobile operating systems will proliferate because of their range of benefits to technology providers and users.

These operating systems provide a framework for consumers to cheaply and effortlessly create custom use cases for devices by using apps that greatly exceed the utility of an internet browser alone.

For developers, mobile operating systems allow the creation and monetisation of apps. Using mobile operating systems, content providers can distribute their wares and it adds another convenient option for consumers to access content. Finally, mobile operating systems enable interconnectivity between connected devices, and thus generate even more new use cases.

iSuppli believes televisions likely represent the next important catalyst in this evolution toward a broader and more unifying consumers platform that encompasses significantly more devices. Despite challenges and past failures in this area, iSuppli expects mobile operating system providers will get the formula right and transition televisions into a new paradigm.

Over the long term, tablets are likely to reshape the computer market, as well.

Consumption versus creation

iSuppli’s current outlook for tablet shipments foresees that these devices will remain content consumption devices, similar to the iPad. However, growth in the tablet segment starting in 2012 could be much higher than now anticipated as these devices take on the kind of content creation capabilities now offered by notebook and netbook PCs.

The transformation of tablets into media creation devices would require the development of operating systems that are more evolved that Apple’s iOS is today.

Even with Microsoft’s stumbles to date in tablets, iSuppli believes that Microsoft will figure out how to design a functional tablet operating system.

Apple also is likely to determine how to evolve iOS and an iPad into a creation platform that is 100pc compatible with the Widows-dominated PC universe. Obviously, Apple could combine iOS and Mac OS at some point, which iSuppli believes is logical, as well.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years