After enormous early success, Apple's iPad and its myriad competitors and imitators are facing a bit of an identity crisis. As laptops get smaller and lighter and smartphones get bigger and more powerful, tablet sales are slowing. According to IDC, the global 2015 tablet market will be 221.8 million units in 2015, down 3.8% from 2014.
That's still a lot of tablets, of course, but the devices are increasingly seen as "nice-to-have" complements to smartphones for everyday use and awkward substitutes for a PC when you have to do real work. If tablets are going to regain their place at the center of mobile computing, something has to change.
Here are my suggestions for what Apple—or other tablet makers—to stem the decline.
1. Go big
There has been a lot of rumors about an Apple iPad "Maxi," but so far no actual devices. But there's a real opportunity for big-screen tablets to redefine the category. Tablets with 13-inch, 14-inch, or even 15-inch screens would be super good ways to easily share content among several people at once. They could also be placed on tables for shared use and take the place of small TV screens for many applications. While still useful for individuals, a truly large tablet would be perfect for small groups of people (families… workgroups…) to use together, opening a new market. Mini-sized tablets, of course, make almost no sense in a world increasingly filled with phablets that are almost as big.
In many ways, tablets have not progressed much beyond the "giant smartphone on steroids" model pioneered by the iPad. One solution would be to give tablets—especially bigger ones—computer-style multitasking capabilities. Some apps already split the screen, doing different things in different sections, but it would be even more powerful to be able to show and work with multiple apps at one time. Again, there have been rumors Apple is working on this, and I hope those stories are true.
3. First-class audio/video presentation
Earlier this month I wrote about Lenovo's Smart Cast technology, which projects a smartphone's touchscreen onto any convenient surface. Squeezing that technology into a fully functional phablet won't be easy, and the larger tablet form factor could be a great interim step. Imagine a tablet with the ability to cast its screen on a wall, big enough for an entire room to see. Or to throw a multiplayer game on a tabletop, letting multiple people play at once. To make that a satisfying experience, of course, you'll need better sound than the puny output today's tablets provide. Apple bought Beats for $3 billion last year… maybe they can use some of that technology to make a tablet that doesn't sound a like strangled mouse trying to sing.
4. Get serious about making tablets into laptop substitutes
Microsoft is pushing this idea for its Surface line, but Apple has a great opportunity to use its supreme design/build talents to build peripherals that could turn an iPad (ideally, a maxi iPad) into a powerful, useful laptop as well as the market-leading tablet. I expected this to have happened already, but so far no go. Sure, it might cannibalize MacBook Air sales, but an iPad with an Apple-designed keyboard and trackpad good enough for real work would be a very powerful combination.
5. Turn them into giant smartphones
OK, so this is sort of counter-intuitive, particularly in light of my previous points. But one way to make tablets more central is to give them the calling capabilities of a smartphone—essentially turning them into giant phablets.Yes, I know you'd look silly holding a huge tablet up to your ear, but with speakerphones and headsets, that doesn't necessarily have to be a problem. And yes, I know that you can't put a tablet in your pocket, but some of the latest phablets don't fit that well either. If you're already carrying a tablet that does everything in your purse/briefcase/backpack, maybe you don't need a separate smartphone, and the tablet could become your primary device.
These are far from the only opportunities to rethink the tablet, and I'm sure that smart people at Apple (and Samsung, and Microsoft, and Lenovo, and so on) will think of better ones that I can. But five years after the introduction of the iPad, it's time for some serious reinvention here.