Things are really starting to get interesting in tablet hardware once you venture outside of the iPad.
To date, Apple's one-size-fits-all iPad has been the dominant device, but competitors are starting to wise up to the fact that maybe competing head on with the iOS juggernaut isn't the best strategy.
Amazon led the way with the 7-inch Kindle Fire that seemingly came out of nowhere last November to become the top-selling Android tablet and, for the time being, the closest thing to a competitor the iPad has. Samsung Electronics out-smalled Amazon with the Galaxy Note, an innovative 5.3-inch "phablet" that the company says has sold over 5 million units.
Now before I go much farther with this, yes, I realize a big part of the iPad's appeal has more to do with the ready availability of hundreds of thousands of free-to-inexpensive apps and the ease of use the iOS, touchscreen experience provides, than how big the display is. Android has a long way to go both in quantity of apps and the quality of the software, to catch Apple.
But hardware innovation and choice are important too. A 5- or 7-inch tablet is far more portable than the iPad and opens up a whole range of additional use cases.
Samsung and Amazon aren't the only companies playing small ball with Apple either. A raft of new 7-inch tablets are showing up along with 8- and 9-inch tablets. Sony went kind of small and big at the same time with the Sony Tablet P that sports two 5.5-inch touch screen displays in a clamshell foldover design for easy transport.
And while these companies are betting big on small, Toshiba surprised this week by betting big on big. The company's new Excite 13 sports a 13.3-inch display, a whopper in the tablet world.
So if 5- and 7-inches are too small for a tablet, as some critics charge, and the Excite 13 is too big, as some early reviews already claim, does that leave Apple in the Goldilocks position of having the soup that’s “just right?”
Not necessarily. Technology advances, consumer expectations and applications change over time. For years I was happy with our 31-inch TV, now anything smaller than the 42-inch model we have now seems small and inadequate.
Toshiba for one, makes a point that the bigger display of the Excite 13 is great for watching movies, so even at a relatively heavy 2.2 pounds it may get some traction even though it’s also has a higher starting list price ($649.99) than the iPad ($499).
The bigger point is that change is coming. You can expect more tablet models big and small, Android and Windows 8, to hit the market later this year.
And the next round of tablet innovation won’t necessarily even come from one of the big hardware makers. I recently spoke with tech veteran Rod Turner who has a new tech-oriented crowdfunding company called START.ac.
“I’m extremely excited by the way the new wave of tablets is taking off. Apple’s the leader, but these are the early days, just like it is for crowdfunding,” he said. “A new tablet created with the help of crowdfunding? Sure, why not?”
However they’re financed, most of these new tablets will fail and none are likely to seriously challenge the iPad anytime soon, but more than a few might just have the right mix of features, performance and price to be worth checking out.
And as smaller form factor tablets start to gain, I don’t expect Apple to stand pat. Rumors are already flying hot and heavy that Apple will release a smaller iPad later this year which, if it happens (and I hope it does), will prove the point that there really is no “perfect” tablet size.