Backwards Compatible: Turning the tables on tablets

Will Podlewski, Columnist

If someone had asked me 10 years ago what a tablet was, I probably would have looked away from Mighty Morphin Power Rangers long enough to tell them it had something to do with the Ten Commandments.  If someone had asked me two years ago, I probably would have ranted about how utterly silly Apple was for adopting a pointless vision of the iPad as a scaled-up iPod Touch.  This year, however, I will happily admit that after some significant growing pains, the tablet has finally found its niche as a coffee table media hub and not as a flashy piece of redundant technology, due in equal parts to shrinking weights, screen sizes and MSRPs.

Now, don’t get me wrong—I still think the entire concept of the tablet is endlessly stupid, but this is the year of the seven-inch tablet, and it’s shaping up to be a good one.

A little history: After the iPad took the world by storm in April 2010 with its roomy 9.7-inch touchscreen display and… not much else, the tech world played catch-up much in the same way it did after 2007’s release of the first iPhone, adopting similar designs with larger screens, more customization options and the Android OS.

But while manufacturers were hurriedly cranking out their own iPad clones (some infringing more on copyrights than others, cough Samsung cough), online retailer Amazon decided to take a different approach. In 2011, Amazon expanded its Kindle e-reader into something that filled the gap between the Kindle’s fairly limited market and the multimedia appeal of a full-size tablet, and the Kindle Fire was born.

With a price lower than some smartphones, the $200, 7-inch Kindle Fire was a revelation.  The Fire threw out much of the features that made its bigger cousins impractical to the casual community, such as complex word processing and unnecessarily speedy processors.  Instead, the Fire embraced a role as a media hub, streaming music and video directly from the Amazon webstore.  And with a manageable size, the Fire made bulky and unwieldy tablets all but obsolete.

Naturally, these slimmer, sleeker tablets proved to be massively successful. Amazon shipped some 4.8 million Fires during the tablet’s launch window alone.  It should come as no surprise, then, that other tech companies were quick to catch on. Amazon’s main e-reader competitor, Barnes & Noble, will provide two new media-savvy Nooks in time for the holiday season. The sales of Google’s excellent Nexus 7 tablet continue to remain strong, and even Apple is rumored to be developing a so-called iPad Mini to dominate yet another market with its massive, if uneducated, fan base.

The massively hyped Nexus 7 was this year’s clear front-runner, refining and deepening the features of the original Fire.  But still being a first-generation device, Google’s offering certainly wasn’t without its flaws.  Much more promising is the reworked Kindle Fire HD, which Amazon will release later this year with a price lower than the Nexus 7, an expanded App store and a zippier processor.

With this flood of new devices, it is all but certain that the tablet is here to stay. And though I prefer to read books made from dead trees and watch my Mighty Morphin Power Rangers on an actual TV, it’s hard to deny the cool factor of the refined and streamlined 7-inch tablet.