Summer 2012 promises to be the season of tablet experimentation on a grander scale than ever.
Just about every tablet maker, including Apple, is rumored (or expected) to announce (or launch) a new tablet version within roughly the next four months. The devices are likely to be smaller in the case of Apple and bigger in the case of Amazon.
Google is expected to announce an inexpensive tablet with hardware maker Asus at the Google I/O conference in late June, while a Windows RT tablet from Microsoft and new-found partner Barnes & Noble could be on tap for late summer or fall.
With so many different reports of new tablets surfacing, it's time to take stock of what's coming.
To begin, here are some general themes seen by analysts for what's coming in the next quarter:
Apple will grow stronger, even with new competitors like Microsoft. That's not a hard conclusion to reach, since Apple took 59% of the global tablet market in 2011, according to IDC, which expects Apple to dominate the tablet market through 2016, at least.
Google will attempt to regain control of a pure Android tablet. Having seen Amazon, with its Kindle Fire, and Barnes & Noble, with the Nook tablet, selling forked versions of Android that lessen dependency on Google services and apps, the company will want to step up its control over the mobile operating system it created.
More vendors will lower the prices of their tablets to compete with the $200 Kindle Fire and the Nook.
More LTE-based tablets will emerge, offering faster wireless connections, even though customers currently prefer Wi-Fi-only models. A move to LTE will become even more likely once wireless carriers announce shared data plans, possibly this summer, that enable users to share smartphone and tablet data, possibly even across a workgroup or a family.
Tablet sizes will vary widely, with touchscreens ranging from 7 to 13 inches diagonally, although a 10-in. form factor will be dominant. The iPad has a 9.7 in. screen.
Here's what's on tap for this summer, in order of likely timing:
This month: Barnes & Noble and Amazon have already kicked off new TV ad campaigns for their current Nook Tablet and Kindle Fire models -- both of which have 7-in. touchscreens. They're hoping to appeal to people shopping for graduation gifts and to clear out inventory to make room for forthcoming models, analysts said.
May or June: Amazon is expected to launch a tablet that's larger than its 7-in. Kindle Fire, but IDC analyst Tom Mainelli said it's not clear whether it will be a 9.7-in. or 8.9-in. device.
Late June: In an announcement that will probably take place at Google I/O, Google is expected to unveil a $200 tablet called Google Play that will run Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) using a Tegra 3 quad-core processor.
The Google Play would be built by Asus, possibly co-branded with Google or purely branded as a Google product. Its biggest distinction would be that it runs plain vanilla Ice Cream Sandwich, not the versions of Android seen in the Nook and the Kindle Fire.
August: Dominant tablet maker Apple is expected to launch a smaller version of the iPad, according to reports in Digitimes and elsewhere on Wednesday. These reports say the smaller iPad will be a 7-in. model, although Mainelli said it could be 7.8 in., just shy of two inches smaller than the current iPad.
Mainelli said the reports of a smaller iPad have credence. A smaller iPad, he said, "will help Apple gain traction in regions [like Japan] where the 9.7-in. tablet has been slower to take off because consumers think it's too big."
A smaller tablet would also enable Apple to offer a tablet at a lower price, possibly in the range of $299 to $349, while still maintaining to its historically high profit margins, Mainelli added.
"Once Apple owns every price point, from $299 to $829 [for the 64GB new iPad with Wi-Fi and 4G LTE connectivity], it's going to be very, very difficult for Android tablets and Windows 8 and Windows RT tablets to compete with Apple," Mainelli said.
Even today, Apple's prices have come down, with the 16GB, Wi-Fi-only iPad 2 model selling at $399, Mainelli added. That level of pricing is attractive to "cash-strapped consumers as well as educational buyers, who are embracing the iPad in a major way in some regions," he said.
By late summer, Microsoft is expected to make clear its plans for Windows 8 and Windows RT tablets, even if the devices don't ship until fall or later. Any announcement on that topic is expected to clarify whether Barnes & Noble and Microsoft, who recently became partners, will cooperate on a Windows tablet.
Also this summer, wireless carriers, such as Verizon Wireless and AT&T, are expected to provide more options for data packaging, where one monthly data plan would cover service across multiple devices, such as a tablet with a smartphone. That kind of data packaging could open up interest in LTE-ready tablets, offering the promise of faster video streaming and browsing.
Mainelli said Verizon is reported to be the first to offer such a data package. An AT&T executive at the CTIA conference also said tablets that combine Wi-Fi and LTE for an affordable price are in the planning stages. AT&T sold out of its Pantech Element tablet, a Wi-Fi-and-LTE device with a price tag of $399. Today, an iPad with LTE and Wi-Fi costs $130 more than a Wi-Fi-only model, not including the cost of a monthly service plan.
"Once carriers start offering the ability to use one data plan across multiple devices, then LTE on tablets become very interesting," Mainelli said.
In addition to whatever new tablets may be announced in the coming months, there are other notable tablets that we know will begin shipping over the summer. They include the Toshiba Excite, the largest tablet at 13.3 in. and 2.2 lbs. It will go on sale June 10, starting at $650 for a 32GB model. It runs Android 4.0 and uses an Nvidia Tegra 3 quad-core processor.
While it's uncertain how well such a large tablet will sell, analysts agree that the Excite 13 is a sign of a fairly staggering amount of diversity in the tablet market.