ORLANDO, Fla.-Was Apple CEO Steve Jobs right about the 7-inch tablet?
In October 2010, Jobs seemed almost gleeful as he denigrated 7-inch tablets as inferior to his 9.7-inch iPad. If you compare the diagonal lengths of a 7-inch and 10-inch screen, he told analysts and media assembled for his company's quarterly earnings call, you find the former is "only 45 percent as large."
Indeed, the latter half of 2010 saw the iPad's competitors rushing to embrace the 7-inch form factor. Samsung, Dell, and Research In Motion all had tablets that size in active development, if not arrived on store shelves.
At the time, Jobs also lobbed a few verbal artillery shells at Google Android.
"We think Android is very, very fragmented, and becoming more fragmented by the day," he said on that same earnings call. "We also think that our developers could be more innovative if they can target a singular platform, rather than a hundred variants. They can put their time into innovative new features, rather than testing on hundreds of different handsets."
Now flash-forward to today, and this year's CTIA conference: nearly every company with a presence here seems to have a tablet ready to hit the marketplace, but very few of them rely on that 7-inch form-factor that previously seemed so popular.
T-Mobile's 8.9-inch G-Slate, manufactured by LG Electronics, walks the line between those 7-inch models and the 9.7-inch iPad. It features a 1GHz Nvidia Tegra dual-core processor, 32GB of internal memory, and Google Android 3.0 (codenamed "Honeycomb," and optimized for the tablet form-factor).
Samsung is also debuting two new models of its Galaxy Tab, adding 10.1-inch and 8.9-inch versions to the original 7-incher in its portfolio. These new Samsung tablets also feature Android 3.0, dual-core processors, and an emphasis on lightness and thinness despite their larger screen size.
According to at least one analyst, Samsung is right to embrace a larger form-factor.
"Both [tablets] are big improvements from the 7-inch that we believe was a big misstep," Brian White, an analyst with Ticonderoga Securities, wrote in a March 23 research note to investors. "In our view, Samsung's Tab and consumer electronics portfolio stands out as one of the better alternatives for users not interested in the Apple ecosystem, however, we expect Apple to handily retain its lead."
While the 10.1-inch Motorola Xoom had its big debut at this year's CES, it also maintains a sizable presence on the CTIA show floor. Optimized with Android 3.0 and a dual-core processor, the device has been touted by some as the first true iPad competitor.
All that being said, some companies continue to throw their weight behind the 7-inch form-factor. On March 22, Sprint unveiled the HTC Evo View 4G, a 7-inch tablet capable of operating on both 3G and speedier 4G networks, and equipped with cameras capable of shooting 3D footage (the LG G-Slate can also snap 3D images and video, hinting at a new trend in mobile tech).
The HTC Evo View 4G relies on a 1.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon processor. Unlike the iPad and its Android-based rivals, the tablet also features an HTC Scribe digital pen, which lets users draw and write on documents and Web pages.
RIM's BlackBerry-branded PlayBook tablet, long in the making, has also appeared at CTIA. In contrast to the other manufacturers' full-bodied embrace of Android, the 7-inch PlayBook relies on a proprietary operating system. RIM is likely hoping that its dual-core processor, paired with a variety of multimedia features and multitasking ability, will appeal to both consumers and BlackBerry's traditional business audience.
RIM's release date for the PlayBook is April 19, with a starting price of $499 for the 16GB model. The 32GB model will retail for $599, and the 64GB for $699.
But however advanced the PlayBook's capabilities, or how much buzz it earns as a major iPad competitor, the tablet began its development alongside first-generation devices such as the original Galaxy Tab. Subsequent tablets-including the Xoom and the updated Tabs-seem much more inclined to embrace a larger screen-size.
All these new devices face Apple's new iPad 2, which includes a dual-core A5 processor, front- and rear-facing cameras, a 9.7-inch capacitive touch-screen with 1024 x 768 resolution, and a body some 33 percent thinner than the original iPad.
As Google Android 3.0 offers manufacturers a tablet-optimized (and industry-homogenous) operating system, as Android Marketplace expands its library of solid productivity and gaming apps, as newer hardware such as dual-core processors makes tablets increasingly powerful, it feels as if manufacturers such as Samsung and Motorola are stretching their proverbial legs a little-and feeling that, with all these elements combined, they're in a stronger position to charge head-on against Apple's dominance of the tablet market.
Despite that dominance, Android may also be making some headway. Recent data from research firm IDC suggests that Apple's share of the tablet market fell between the third and fourth quarters of 2010, from 93 percent to 73 percent. That being said, however, IDC also expects Apple to maintain a market-share between 70 percent and 80 percent in 2011, powered largely by the iPad 2's performance.
The tablets present at CTIA suggest that Apple's rivals are very interested in taking market-share of their very own-and many of them seem willing to bet on a larger screen-size to do so.